BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD and Squalor Porn: Examining Cinema’s Preferred View of the Black Existence in America

It’s not that I didn’t like director Benh Zietlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, because there were certainly aspects of the film I appreciated. The production design was amazing, parts of the story were compelling, and the performances by Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry were nothing short of phenomenal. But despite these factors, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which has been critically praised for what has been perceived as its uncompromising depiction of abject poverty, fused with elements of the fantastic, is in and of itself an example of the pervasive and continued problematic depiction of African Americans in film. Despite whatever good can be said about the film—and again, there is good to be said—what we have here is ultimately the culmination of long-standing ideologies and accepted cinematic conventions that render it as something bordering on insidious. To put it in more simple terms, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the latest in a long line of films that ventures into, and inhabits comfortably, a film genre I have dubbed “squalor porn.” This genre offers an otherworldly, fetishistic view of poverty, in which being poor is a glamorized state of being where the oppressed and under-educated exist, primarily as means of contrast to the idealized—if not unrealistic—perception of the middle class. Though traces of squalor porn can be found in films across the globe—in movies such as City of God from Brazil and Tsotsi from South Africa—it exists in the United States in a very particular way, serving a very particular purpose.

Squalor porn has emerged in the last decade as one of the preferred cinematic lenses through which to view the black experience in America. Before the emergence of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the best example of squalor porn would be director Lee Daniels’s Precious, though films such as Monster’s Ball and Training Day also venture into the genre as well. Interestingly, Precious, Monster’s Ball, and Training Day are all films in which actors have won Oscars, signifying not only an acceptance of black characters living in depravity and squalor, carrying themselves in morally questionable if not morally reprehensible ways, it actually encourages these sorts of portrayal. The popularity and critical praise leveled at Beasts of the Southern Wild serve as markers of the film’s uncompromising entrenchment in squalor porn. Not since Precious has a film depicting the black experience been so universally beloved by such a large number of critics and audiences alike. The reason for this is simple: films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Precious place black characters within socio-economic contexts and ideological constructs that white audiences find acceptable, and as such accept as being universally true. In other words, squalor porn fits within a framework of what a significant number of white people believe to be true about black people, or want to be true about black people.

Gabourey Sidibe in Precious

The notion of what African Americans are, or the desire to believe what they are supposed to be, is nothing new to American cinema. The racist perceptions of blacks as inferior to whites is an ideological construct firmly rooted in American cinema, and has proven to be pervasive tool in the further propagation of racial mythology. The emergence of squalor porn is not something that appeared out of nowhere, but rather something that has evolved over the course of time, with roots that can be traced back well before the invention of moving pictures. It is merely that films such as Birth of a Nation allowed the perceptions of blacks in poverty, living as under-educated, animalistic sub-humans, to grow and flourish in a powerful medium that had the ability to pass itself off as an approximation to reality. The problem, of course, is that reality is subjective, and when combined with ideology, as is apt to happen within the cinematic form—whether consciously or unconsciously—what is deemed real by one viewer becomes propaganda to another.

Cinematic reality is measured against the context in which it is placed, and the willingness of an audience to accept that contextualization. A film like Lord of the Rings presents a reality that clearly does not exist, yet within the context of the film, audiences accept Middle Earth as reality. This acceptance, commonly known as willing suspension of disbelief, is the crucial element of the audience accepting cinematic reality. In the case of a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild, the reality that is presented is deeply entrenched in the conventions of squalor porn. What is more, as the film reveals elements rooted in fantasy—specifically the titular beasts of the southern wild—it deviates from the real world, while miraculously staying within the structural reality of its squalor porn universe. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the resourceful and precocious heroine of the film, enters into a world of fantasy that never deviates from the world she lives in. This stands as a striking contrast from so many other fairy tales—of which Beasts of the Southern Wild ultimately is—because Hushpuppy always stays within a reality that white audiences can comfortably accept. And that reality is determined by the conventions of squalor porn, which in turn is dictated by ideologies indicative of racism and colonialism.

This is not to say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is racist, so much as it is symptomatic of American cinema, which is itself systemically racist. Squalor porn is a byproduct of the pervasive racist and colonialist ideologies in America, as reflected through American film. Ironically, films like Beasts of the Southern Wild that are either firmly rooted in the squalor porn genre, or venture into it as a means of establishing a recognizable reality of blackness in America, are frequently seen as commentaries critical of this reality, while at the same time reveling in its perpetuation as stereotype. The tropes and conventions of squalor porn are defined by the racial misconceptions that often pass as reality insofar as African Americans are concerned, and are thereby presented to audiences not only willing to accept these presentations as real, but who know no other realities of the black experience. It is this sort of cinematic conditioning that resulted in the happy slave characterization found in films like Gone with the Wind, which reflected an anti-Reconstruction, pro-slavery ideology. And it is the same cinematic conditioning that allows the Reagan-era ideological constructs of welfare mothers and drug-dealing hoodlums to define the heroes and heroines of squalor porn, whether that squalor is depicted in the favelas of Brazil or the ghettoes of the United States.

Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild

The acceptance and popularity of squalor porn speaks to divides within audience spectatorship. American film is largely produced to appeal to the white demographic, and is therefore crafted in a way that triggers an acceptance of cinematic reality within the parameters of the collective willing suspension of disbelief of the white spectator. It is the willingness of the white spectator to accept Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings as a cinematic reality that makes it a successful film. However, it is also the ability of the white spectator to accept the fact that there are no black people in Middle Earth that keeps the film from being scrutinized as a byproduct of racism and colonialist ideologies. And while Lord of the Rings may not seem racist from the perspective of white spectatorship—which is in and of itself merely the mainstream audience—the spectatorship of non-white audiences calls into question the racist overtones of the film. This is not to say that Lord of the Rings is any more or less racist than Beasts of the Southern Wild, though it firmly places both films within cinematic realities that white audiences are willing to accept. In the case of Lord of the Rings, this is a reality where blacks do not exist, and therefore serve no purpose or importance. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, black people exist, but only within the accepted and recognizable reality of squalor porn. Rejecting either of these cinematic realities is indicative of either an inability or an unwillingness to view film through a paradigm of the dominant audience’s ideological perceptions.

Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and the continued acceptance of squalor porn as a persistently accepted representation of black reality is the result of ideological constructs of racism and colonialism, manifested in cinema. These manifestations, which receive the praises of Hollywood, then continue to feed into an ideology that presents the black experience as something mired in negativity, and ultimately creates a cinematic convention that dehumanizes African Americans. This cycle has been an integral part of the legacy of cinema, but in recent years it has become especially problematic. Upon close examination, some of the most critically praised performances by black actors, a films dealing with the black experience, have focused on black people at their worst. Oscars were given to Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Forest Whitacker, and Mo’Nique, all for playing the sort of people no reasonable human being would ever want to know, in films about realities that no one would ever want to witness. At its most basic, cinema provides an escape to other realities where audience feel a sense of familiarity or comfort, even in times of distress. But what does it say about this society when so many of the cinematic realities that audiences are comfortable venturing into to witness the black experience are all places no one really wants to be?

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