Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Wading (Again) in the Water

For a moment there, it seemed as though the Republican National Convention in Tampa would be swamped by Hurricane Isaac. Florida girded for trouble, but instead Isaac headed for Looziana, much as his older cousin Katrina had done in 2005. Fortunately, the damage wasn’t nearly as great this time around. The levees protecting New Orleans held, and there were “only” eight deaths and 13,000 damaged homes before Isaac moved on.

The recurring phenomenon of Southern Louisiana being battered by an outsized storm has reminded me of all the memorable movies that are set in The Big Easy and environs. Some are real oldies, like a steamy 1957 clunker called Band of Angels. Set before and during the Civil War, Band of Angels features Clark Gable as a slave trader with a secret, Yvonne de Carlo as a privileged daughter of the South who discovers the ugly truth about her parentage, and a very young Sidney Poitier as Gable’s deeply conflicted right-hand man. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high, and there’s a whole lot of miscegenation goin’ on. New Orleans in Band of Angels is where the slave traders gather to ply their evil business. So it’s only fair that when the war comes, the city should be decimated by Union troops.

New Orleans suffers again in The Big Easy, a modern-dress thriller from 1987 starring Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin, and Ned Beatty. This time the culprit is the corrupt element deeply entrenched within the city’s political and legal establishment. It’s a taut little film, enriched by vivid location shooting.

Of course we’ve all looked at New Orleans in a different light since Hurricane Katrina. I have not seen Treme, the acclaimed HBO series that fictionalizes the aftermath of Katrina in one devastated New Orleans neighborhood. But I saw and was deeply moved by the 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary, Trouble the Water, which incorporates real-time video footage of an inundated New Orleans. It was shot by a young ex-drug dealer who loses her home to the floodwaters but never loses hope that she can resurrect her life.

This has been a lackluster summer for movies, but one small indie hit is all about water and its impact on a motley group of Louisiana natives. I’m talking about Beasts of the Southern Wild, set not in the city of New Orleans but in a fictitious bayou fishing community known as “The Bathtub.” The denizens of The Bathtub, who are ethnically diverse but share a fierce sense of solidarity against the outside world, have no use for city life. Though their world is threatened by erosion and rising sea levels, they refuse to trade their little pocket of land for a safer, dryer existence. We see this through the eyes of Hushpuppy, who though only six has learned from her daddy to face life squarely. Part of the film’s magic lies in Hushpuppy’s matter-of-fact narration. She’s appreciative of the joy to be found in her soggy surroundings (“The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world”), but hangs tough in the face of adversity (“They think we're all gonna drown down here. But we ain't going nowhere”).

Hushpuppy is played by a Louisiana local, the remarkable Quvenzhan√© Wallis, who is already being touted for award consideration. So is another non-actor, Dwight Henry, who plays her father. Says Henry, "I was in Hurricane Katrina in neck-high water. I have an inside understanding for what this movie is about. . . . An outsider couldn't have brought the passion to the role that I did.” Sometimes authenticity truly swamps artistic technique.


  1. I too enjoy movies set in Lousiana, if that's fine bayou. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Of the ones you mentioned - I've only seen The Big Easy - but I liked it. Recently the Hatchet movies (1 and 2 are out - 3 is in post production) filmed in the New Orleans area - the first two movies starting out in the city before moving to the swamp for the bulk of the 80's style gory slasher shenanigans.

    Beasts of the Southern Wils and Trouble the Water both sound well worth a look - think I'll be seeking them out before I parish...(I can't stop! But then you got caught up too - with that swamp pun in the last sentence!)

    Let's agree we'll levee no fines on each other and move on!


  2. Sounds as though you're writing from Punsylvania, Mr. Craig! No way I can continue along these lines, so I'll just say that my one warning with both films is that you'll occasionally feel you need subtitles. Those Looziana accents can get awfully thick.