Beasts of the Southern Wild: How We Define Poverty

“Poverty: the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions” – Webster’s Dictionary (Online edition)

I’m late to this party. Apparently, everyone saw this last year and it blew everyone away. When I first set down to watch this, I thought it was going to be a fantasy. (This from having only partially read part of a word on the Google page. That word being, “Fantastically.” I know. Don’t judge me.) This was not a fantasy. Not even a little.

It was heartbreaking. Director Benh Zeitlin and the rest of the Court 13 team do a masterful job of blending stunning performances (from first-time actors no less) and incredible lines all designed to rip you apart. And every time they say, “Don’t cry” you cry more. Why would they even put that in there? That’s like telling someone, “don’t look down,” or, “don’t go left.” You know that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

In case you’re also new to the party, a quick synopsis. The story surrounds the cutest little girl known to man, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) who lives who lives on a small fictional island off the coast of Louisiana known as the “Bathtub.” Named so, I image, because when the great state floods, all of the water lands right on top of them…just them and no one else. A levee was built to keep flood waters in their area and away from everyone else.

The place is small. There’s like fifty people who live there. After being under water for two weeks, Wink, Hushpuppy’s father (Dwight Henry), and some friends decide to blow a hole in the levee to drain the water. Hushpuppy’s teacher Miss Bathsheba (played by Gina Montana) is angry when she finds out and runs (well boats) to stop them.

Here’s what I thought was interesting. She wasn’t angry because they were going to destroy the levee (which I imagine to be some type of criminal offense). She was angry because Wink and co were going to draw attention to the fact that there were still people there and the government would come and take them away to a shelter.

At first I thought, “Oh my God!!! They’re going to take them away!!!” And then I was like, wait. They’re impoverished. Their houses were run down and dripping, their clothes were a mess; they obviously did not have much money. I’m looking around my room and house. I’ve got carpet, washing machine, blankets, etc.

But as I watched them I realized, they’re not hungry. They farm. They fish. They eat what they want. The kids are happy and educated. They run around; no one’s worried about them getting kidnapped or disappearing into a dark alley somewhere. They’re basically a community living off the land.

That’s not really impoverished, is it?

Admittedly, I’m a city brat. I’ve lived in cities my whole life. Lived in small ones like Topeka, KS and large one like London, England. Personally, I couldn’t live in a place like the Bathtub. Not enough buildings. Not enough people. And I’m an allergy sufferer. Physically, the place looks like it would tear me apart. I visited the 9th ward while I was in Louisiana a few years back. It wasn’t even allergy season, but damn if my ass didn’t get allergy-kicked from one end of that ward to the other.

I live now in Kansas City, MO. After a few years of travel and living in other places, I’m back in my hometown. I don’t know my neighbors. I say hello to them when I see them. They seem like nice people. They have twin boys who I think are about 10-years-old. But I don’t know their names. And at the distance from which I’ve seen them, I’m not sure I could identify them in a line-up.

There are quite a few people living in this city that I grew up with. But I don’t know where they live anymore. We just don’t see each other that often for various non-hostile reasons.

The point is we measure poverty by wealth. But what about community? If I had to tell Hushpuppy that she was impoverished, I don’t even know how I’d explain why. What would I say to her? “You’re impoverished because your house isn’t as nice as mine.” “You use a gas stove instead of electric.” “You don’t have internet. You have no Facebook. That’s how I know you’re impoverished.”

My life is not for everyone. Neither is Hushpuppy’s. But if you have your health, food, water, clothes, shelter, education, and a good community with people you love and trust, how can anyone say you’re impoverished?

Side note: Gas stoves are wonderful. As long as you don’t use it to blow up your house, that fire makes amazing quesadillas. Just saying.

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