Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Ask the Beasts of the Southern Wild: Exploring Human Identity as Beast, Being and Beholder in Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love and Beasts of the Southern Wild

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Ask the Beasts of the Southern Wild: Exploring Human Identity as Beast, Being and Beholder in Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love and Beasts of the Southern Wild

Article excerpt

Introduction

During a time when suffering caused by climate change and environmental degradation continues to intensify, it is increasingly important to find compelling ways to share the stories of those who suffer most. Ecological feminist theology critiques the hierarchical, dualistic, human-centered structures and thought processes that create and contribute to unjust realities. Catholic Christian theology further centers this critique in relation to the will of God. Hierarchical dualism and anthropocentrism together encourage a dangerous anthropology where human primacy in creation and the prioritization of certain humans leads to destruction for all. By utilizing the aesthetic appeal and sacramentalizing nature of cinematic masterpieces such as Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)1 to inform thought-provoking ecofeminist theologies such as Elizabeth Johnson's in Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2014),2 one approaches the moral imperative to care for creation with renewed insight into the shared human experience of being a beast, being, and beholder of God's glorious world. By engaging ecofeminist theology with film theory, I show how Beasts of the Southern Wild animates and contextualizes the theological claims of Ask the Beasts, specifically the claim of humans identifying as beasts, beings, and beholders. Through the eyes of Hushpuppy, Beasts of the Southern Wild's young, female protagonist, viewers realize just how interconnected is the plight of the planet, the poor, and all who lack places of privilege. Inspiring stories of hope exist: stories of humble strength, quiet power, and forceful love that transcend the dichotomies set up by hierarchical dualism and demand a more egalitarian and holistic reality with their paradoxical truths. These are the stories that must be shared. These are the stories encountered if one asks the beasts of the southern wild.

The Film

While not overtly theological, the 2012 Oscar-nominated film Beasts of the Southern Wild s portrayal of both human and non-human creation and their interactions and influences upon each other provides a glimpse into the divine interconnectedness of all creation and the unique identity of human as beast, being, and beholder. In allowing the film to sacramentalize this interconnectedness and identity, one can engage both the film and theology in conversation.3

Zeitlin says that the film evolved from a desire to celebrate the stories of people he met in Louisiana while working on his prior short-film, Sea of Glory (2008).4 With over half the cast of Beasts of the Southern Wild hailing from Louisiana bayou communities, many of these inspiring individuals appear in the film: lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy)5 and lead actor Dwight Henry (Wink)6 among them. The 65-member film crew also included Louisiana residents. It is not only the people involved with Beasts of the Southern Wild that reflect Zeitlin's desire to celebrate this community, but also the film set. Shooting took place outside of New Orleans, making the post-Hurricane Katrina-esque landscape of the imaginary Bathtub community not entirely fictitious. The plot of the film can be summarized as follows.

Five-year-old Hushpuppy lives with her dad, Wink, and a small community in the Bathtub, a fictional bayou off the coast of a Louisiana-esque landmass. The Bathtub's inhabitants, who live in shanty-houses and survive off the land, are separated from the industrialized society of the main coast by a large levy which threatens to flood the Bathtub's inhabitants out of their homes (and possibly their lives). Most of the time, the levy does not cause problems, but when it rains, one's position relative to the levy becomes a matter of life and death.

Ms. Bathsheba (Gina Montana) teaches Hushpuppy and her classmates about impending global issues that, if ignored, will have deadly effects on the Bathtub community. She explains that the polar ice caps are melting and causing water levels to rise. …

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