Storytelling Through Colours: Why Beasts of the Southern Wild Should Have Won Best Picture

By Jason Smythe

(Quvenzhzé Wallis) Still image from Beasts of the Southern Wild

We live in an imperfect world. How do I know this? Because 1) I am not getting paid one billion dollars to write this article/‘like’ shit on Facebook, and 2) the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscars) commits travesties like they are going out of style. If I were to list all of the Academy’s crimes against film, this article would be longer than a Tolstoy novel. Some of its worst offences include, but are not limited to: Citizen Kane not winning best picture; Al Pacino not winning an Oscar for either The Godfather 1 or 2; Apocalypse Now losing to Kramer vs. Kramer for best picture; and Stanley Kubrick never winning an Oscar for best director (ditto for Alfred Hitchcock). This year, two more travesties were committed: 1) The Master was not nominated for best picture, and 2) of the films that were nominated, Beasts of the Southern Wild somehow lost to Argo. The reason Beasts should have won is simple, for it did something that none of the other nominated films were able to do: it blurred the line between art and film, and it did this by using colours to tell a story.

Using colours to tell a story is a difficult task, and requires a filmmaker to operate in subtleties, rather than other more conventional means of filmmaking. Beasts director Benh Zeitlin succeeds brilliantly, creating one of the most visually stunning films since Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Like Barry Lyndon, Beasts often feels more like a painting than a film, as Zeitlin uses colours to convey the characters’ emotions to the audience. I will focus on two particularly prominent emotions: love and happiness.

In the opening scene we meet Hushpuppy, the pint-sized heroine of this painting/film, and we are treated to a veritable orgy of colours, all symbolic of how happy she is living in The Bathtub. The yellowish-white glow of the sparklers and fireworks perfectly conveys something the Danish call ‘hyggelig’—the closest translation in English being ‘the warmth and comfort one feels when surrounded by loved ones.’ A more conventional movie such as Silver Linings Playbook (nominated as well for best picture) would have the characters explicitly state their feelings, presenting the happiness etc. of their characters in a very cliché and obvious way. However, through the use of colours Zeitlin is able to not only convey that Hushpuppy is happy, but also, the viewer is able to grasp that this happiness radiates from her marrow.

The colour red is featured prominently in this film, and unsurprisingly, is used to convey love and warmth. On numerous occasions, we see Hushpuppy and the rest of The Bathtub’s inhabitants feasting on shrimp and crab. Each time Zeitlin focuses on the redness of these sea creatures, he wants the viewer to understand the sense of ‘hyggelig’ these characters are feeling, and conveys this through the vividness of the red. The two best uses of the colour red, however, are used in scenes that feature Hushpuppy’s mom. The first of these scenes shows the moment Wink (Hushpuppy’s father) fell in love with her, and it is one of the best and most poignant scenes of the year. Wink falls asleep near the water, and awakens to discover a giant gator approaching him. As the gator inches closer, Hushpuppy’s mom appears out of nowhere—an angel clothed in nothing but a pair of painfully white briefs and holding a shotgun. Wink’s newfound love kills the gator, the blast from the shotgun causing some of the gator’s blood to spray on her briefs. As the camera lingers slightly on the bloody briefs, we not only understand that this is the moment Wink fell in love with her, but we also feel his love for her grow as each millisecond passes.

Beasts of the southern wild  2 Still image from Beasts of the Southern Wild

The second of these scenes is when Hushpuppy enters the whorehouse (where, unbeknownst to her, her long-absent mother is working as a cook). The walls are lined with red, and Hushpuppy and the other children are welcomed with open arms by the most matronly of prostitutes. It is no coincidence that this whorehouse radiates with such love, as the venue is rather aptly called “Elysian Fields,” an obvious reference to Elysium, the final resting place for the souls of the heroic and the virtuous in Greek mythology. It is only natural that such a place would be full of love and ‘hyggelig.’ When Hushpuppy finally meets her mom the scenes are dominated by yellows, harkening back to the happiness and peace she felt during the sparkler and fireworks scene. Again, Beasts is more a painting than it is a film.

So, we are left with this question: how did Beasts not win the Oscar for best picture? The problem is that most people want easy and obvious answers, and when a movie does not present its audience with obvious solutions, they tend to get upset. Although the answers to all of Beast’s questions and problems are in the subtext (thus existing on a subconscious rather than a conscious level), the Academy failed to realize this, therefore causing them to choose Argo as the year’s best film. All is not lost however, for although neither Kubrick nor Hitchcock have any Oscars between them, they are widely heralded as two of the greatest (if not the greatest) directors of all time. History has been kind to them, and Beasts too will eventually be vindicated by history. So join me and appease your inner hipster by jumping on the ‘Beasts Should Have Won Best Picture’ bandwagon before it becomes too mainstream. Plus, it will make people think you know the colour wheel.

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