Daddy’s Dying: Notes on ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012) wasn’t originated by Black people, and the play that inspired it — Lucy Alibar’s Juicy and Delicious (2007) — didn’t foresee a main cast of Black people, but this film adaptation did (at least attempt to) articulate a fantastical, feral, Black anticapitalism. The film’s on-screen community is fictive, but it expresses wrinkles of Black life that tend to be smoothed out in pursuit of narratives with mass appeal (narratives that insist Black don’t crack, Black don’t tire, Black don’t have pockets and hidden passageways). In Southern Wild, Black characters are cracking, learning, escaping, living, dying. They aren’t reducible to emblems of Black Progress or Black Failure, and they have convictions about how they want to live that exceed limitations of The State, status, and the state of the world. 

“Ain’t that ugly over there? We got the prettiest place on Earth.”

— Wink (Hushpuppy’s Daddy)

Hushpuppy, who was a southern white boy in Juicy and Delicious, is a black southern boyish girl in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Throughout this film, she narrates the glory of her reviled, wild, southern home in the dregs of Louisiana, on the wet side of the levee. “Daddy says up above the levee, on the dry side, they’re afraid of the water like a bunch of babies,” Hushpuppy tells us as the camera roams her community like a familiar. “They built the wall that cuts us off. They think we’re all gonna drown down here, but we ain’t going nowhere. The Bathtub’s got more holidays than the whole rest of the world.” We, the audience, then follow Hushpuppy to a Cajun party with hearty music and food, held in a home with thin, ramshackle walls that barely restrict the growth outside. Bathtub is a community of people who don’t care to separate themselves from nature, who don’t run when storms come. 

Bathtub’s schoolteacher, Miss Bathsheba, teaches Hushpuppy and her peers that the end of the world is inevitable, and there’s no running from it. “Any day now, fabric of the universe is gonna be unraveled… y’all better learn how to survive now,” Miss Bathsheba warns with the foresight of someone who’s already lived through world-endings. Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, mirrors this philosophy in his own right, trying to teach his daughter the only strength he’s known: manhood. With his ailing heart, he knows he can’t support Hushpuppy forever, and he doesn’t think she’ll survive on her own if she’s a girl, if she’s not a man. Curiously, his recollection of Hushpuppy’s mother defies his own definition of strength and survival as manhood.

Hushpuppy’s mother, Jovan, is a woman who inspired myths. Hot enough to set water to boil and make a hard man soft, tough enough to hunt an alligator in nothing but her underwear. Jovan left Wink and Hushpuppy behind, went to live on her own, un-appended, and she was not a man, and she survived.

Hushpuppy studies both of her parents as she constructs her own personhood. She emulates some of her father’s strength and some of her mother’s independence, devising a fierce, wise, girlhood. Hushpuppy’s mama is gone and her daddy is dying, but through (and despite) their withdrawals she has space to revise their lessons. Hushpuppy knows, Hushpuppy says, “Everybody loses the thing that made them.” 

References / Further Reading:

BOOK | Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World by Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (2020)

SONG / VIDEO | “Daddy Lessons” by Beyoncé, from Lemonade (2016)

ESSAY | “The Belly of the World: A Note on Black Women’s Labors” by Saidiya Hartman (2016)

ESSAY | “CREATURELY, THROWAWAY LIFE AFTER KATRINA: Salvage the Bones and Beasts of the Southern Wild” by Christopher Lloyd (2016)

ESSAY | “Little Monsters: Race, Sovereignty, and Queer Inhumanism in Beasts of the Southern Wild” by Tavia Nyong’o (2015)

ARTICLE | “Beasts of the Southern Wild – The Romance of Precarity I” by Christina Sharpe (2013)

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