Oscar Night: Thoughts on Beast of the Southern Wild and Child Naming

The little actress, Quevenzhane Wallis, is thought to be a strong contender for the Best Actress award in tonight’s Academy Awards. She definitely did a great job but I want to overall say how happy I am to have an original movie with a predominately African-American cast reach this level of praise and recognition. Black movies with Oscar buzz have traditionally centered around movies retelling the lives of the famous (Ali, Ray, Malcolm X, Lady Sings the Blues), horrific events ( Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland), music (Ray, Lady Sings the Blues, Cadillac Records, Hustle and Flow, Dreamgirls), or overcoming the system (The Color Purple, The Help, Glory, The Green Mile, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, the Blind Side, etc.). Others have focused on the affects of urban decay and the broken family through action movies (Boyz In the Hood, Training Day) or dark dramas (Precious, Monster’s Ball).

What makes Beast of the Southern Wild stand out is that it forgets about all of these agendas and standbys and just relies on what makes all great movies great – storytelling. Here you have a rich, uniquely African-American story full of wonder and visuals which  takes the bold risk of going without the traditional villains of racists and the system, the crowd pleasing music and big stars, or the safe path to Oscar glory by simply recreating history. Another unique element of Beasts is the rural setting. We seem to forget about all of the Black families who don’t live in the ‘hood’ and ignore our rural community. But these communities are still prevalent, especially in the South. All of those other movies are greatly entertaining, and I think no less of them. I think because of the past oppressions of Blacks in America, many directors have been limited on what kind of stories could get a green light to be made. But Beasts of the Southern Wild is a rare treat, and I hope it is just the start of a wave of amazing, original, atypical stories coming out of our long and rich culture.

Now here is the only negative I have to say about this topic: we really need to give a lot of thought into naming our children. The young actress, Quevenzhane, has a name which means ‘fairy’ in Swahili. I’m not sure how accurate this is though since one poster of a message board who speaks Swahili said there is not a ‘Z’ nor accents in the language. Anyway, I know we have a tradition of getting creative with names or looking to African cultures for inspiration, and I’m not totally against this, BUT you have to think about a number of things before making your child’s name final:

1) Can it be pronounced in the community and country where she is going to live? It’s nice to pick a Swahili name but how many people speak Swahili in the US again? I do think if she had an easier name, she would be in more conversations as a future star. But most people only can say ‘that cute girl’ when describing her. Of course, there aren’t a lot of Barak Obama’s floating around in the US either, but the syllables and letter combinations in that name can at lease be tackled by an English speaker. Most people wouldn’t even know where to start with Quevenzhane. Even worse, the name is NOT pronounced how it is spelled. That is not fair to the girl nor the people trying to communicate with her. Now, learning that her mother’s name is Qulyndreia, perhaps it’s a family tradition but you would think someone would want to change it.

2) What are the life outcome trends for people currently having that name? Are you naming your kid a name commonly shared with CEO’s of businesses, professionals, community leaders, etc. or one commonly shared among jail populations and pole dancers?  Sorry to say but in the real world, people draw conclusions of family education level, behavior, and values based on your name. It’s not right, but many resumes have been rejected because of how decision makers feel about a name.

3) Is the spelling of the name consistent with the rules of the language? We all want out kids to be different, but if you are naming a boy Zhtaool and telling us it’s an alternative spelling of Paul, that is a YOU problem. No one should need training on new English rules just because you want to throw some letters together.

I will say that this advice is not just limited to us. White America has gotten on the bandwagon as well. It’s great that you are finding rich names by looking into your Irish and Gaelic heritage. But please stop making us struggle with the Aine’s and the Sadhbh’s. And do we really need 100 different spellings of Kaitlin.

Anyway, I hope that the ‘cute girl’ in Beast of the Southern Wild, whatever her name is, gets her shining moment tonight and more such movies will be produced.

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