Getting Up Close and Personal with Crawdads and Vengeance
A look at how film informs our perspective
I don’t think we consider enough what film teaches us about ourselves and the circumstances of people with whom we have little sustained contact. Vengeance and Where the Crawdads Sing (Crawdads) are two films that accomplish this, taking us out of our comfort zones and bringing the unfamiliar up-close and personal.
Crawdads follows Kya, a girl who is abandoned by her family in the 1950s and grows up alone on their land in a North Carolina marsh. When the restless 8-year-old ventures into nearby Barkley Cove for school, the town’s privileged adults hurl names at her like “Marsh Girl” while the children tease her for lacking shoes and suitable outfits for school. Traumatized by the treatment, Kya withdraws to shield herself from the sting, minimizing even casual encounters with anyone but her shadow. Destitute, she makes a life for herself in the marsh without the help of formal schooling, family, or even neighbors. She trusts less than a handful of people, two of them being Jumpin’ and Mabel. Played by Sterling Macer Jr. (Double Take, BAB) and Michael Hyatt (The Little Things, Snowfall), respectively, the congenial Black couple own the General Store in town and support the young girl with clothing and food. Kya also comes to trust Tom Milton, a kindly older lawyer, played by David Strathairn (The Bourne Ultimatum, Godzilla).
In her seemingly endless days, weeks, months, and years of solitude, Kya, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People, Under the Banner of Heaven), evolves into a naturalist, making beautifully detailed drawings of shells, and documenting the different species of birds and insects along with their habits. As she grows into a young adult and yearns for intimate relationships, she opens her heart to Tate, played by Taylor John Smith (Cruel Intentions, You Get Me) and slowly begins to discover what it feels like to be connected to people beyond her tiny circle, to learn what it feels like to love, be loved, and all that it means. But when a popular guy in town is found dead in a well-known hangout in the marsh, Kya is conveniently accused of his murder and the people in town unhesitatingly accept that “the Marsh Girl did it.”
While Crawdads focuses on the life and travails of a young woman, Vengeance centers on Ben, a 30-something budding journalist from New York City. The inciting incident occurs when Ben receives news of the sudden death of Abilene Shaw, a woman from rural Texas with whom he had a one-night stand during her visit to the Big Apple. When her distraught brother, Ty, calls with the news, Ben initially struggles to remember her, and even when he does, he expresses only obligatory condolences rather than the genuine sense of sadness expected by her brother. Confused as to why he received a call at all, Ben, played by B.J. Novak (The Office, Inglourious), quickly learns that Abilene led her family to believe he was her fiancée. When Ty, played by Boyd Holbrook (In the Shadow of the Moon, The Predator), coerces him into coming to Texas for the funeral, Ben stays and writes a story about southern rural life, under the guise of helping the family find the person responsible for Abilene’s death and getting “retribution.”
In his half-hearted effort to get answers from authorities, Ben becomes flabbergasted and exhausted as none appear committed to investigating Abilene’s death, let alone finding out who is responsible for dumping her body in an oil field where, conveniently, jurisdiction is unclear. Resigning himself to the reality that the case will never be solved, Ben returns to what was always his priority—writing his story.
Crawdads and Vengeance are released at an interesting time in the U.S., when the states are segmented into red or blue and the language used to assess and even describe the phenomenon is largely negative (i.e. separate, divided). Like labeling, the consequences for this are prejudgments and deepening antagonisms about the people in each segment, affecting our ability to view them as residents of the same country or even as situated in a culture that is unique to each state. Perhaps the stories in these films will blur the lines a bit, encourage us to see what we have in common and still appreciate the uniqueness of our lived experiences.
It is also interesting that these two independent films landed in mainstream theaters. If released at all, films centering Whites in rural areas of the South typically feature characters who are passively ridiculed in a short-lived cut or portrayed one-dimensionally as villainous because something went quite awry in their lives. Ironically, Ben is presented as the oddity in Vengeance, as he missteps the culture of a rodeo event and later has a meltdown because he cannot get the answers to what he views as simple questions for his story. In stark contrast, for the Shaw family, it ain’t that serious; it just is.
Sociology teaches that you cannot understand a person without engaging him or her. In the case of a community, you cannot understand it without becoming a part of it. Some of the best research is conducted by engaging people and becoming a part of communities (Read Nickel and Dimed by the late Barbara Ehrenreich.). The engagement—questions, conversations, immersion in the culture—is meant to learn about people given their everyday circumstances, not as tools for manipulating and shaping their world views. This learning takes more than a minute, an hour, or even a day. Rather, it takes weeks, months, and sometimes even years.
Ben’s effort to exploit the Shaws for a story and shape them into viewing the world through his eyes (i.e. expressing themselves in ways he understands them, and believing they are missing out by not being connected to urban life as he is) speaks volumes about how our biases shape who we are. They also speak to how, at times, we consciously or unconsciously view ourselves as more accepted, normal, or in some way better than others. From this vantage point, we (intentionally or not) impose constraints on others, stripping away their humanity and treating them as outsiders.
We also see this in Crawdads, when Kya is indicted for murder and the other citizens are convinced, without evidence, that “the Marsh girl” did it. This label and Kya’s lack of connection to the influential people in town who had effectively relegated her to the marsh, allows for objectifying and dehumanizing her. This influences the attitudes and actions of authorities and other townspeople toward Kya, making it seem perfectly logical to believe she committed the crime.
At the risk of being redundant, it fascinates me that these two films that do a wonderful job humanizing Whites in rural areas of the South landed in mainstream theaters. Classified as a comedy/mystery, Vengeance falls on some obvious stereotypes of Whites in rural areas. But the development of the characters over the 107 minutes allows us to see the Shaws as people rather than the typical cinematic caricatures of Whites in the Deep South. Crawdads, a drama/mystery film, provides a singular laser-focused glimpse into the life of a girl abandoned by her family at a very young age and forced to grow up alone, living off the land. In presenting these circumstances and her ostracism by the people in town, the film humanizes her and even tugs at the audience’s heart strings. I wonder, though, if these are still viewed as one-off portrayals.
Much has been written on the power of film representations in shaping our perspective. In a 2017 interview with the Huffington Post, Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón who now heads the Entertainment and Media Research Initiative at UCLA states, “What you see [on film] often becomes a part of your memory and thus a part of your life experience.” Will audience members come away from these stories with an informed perspective about people in rural areas of the South, or will they soon dismiss the depictions as atypical and not representative of Whites in the Deep South? In films where White characters from rural areas are ridiculed or portrayed as criminally defective (i.e. Deliverance, Winter’s Bone, Mud), we don’t typically walk away viewing Whites as a group in these ways. This is largely due to the preponderance of “normal” middle-class Whites in the film and television images we see. Thus, White representations that deviate from these depictions are dismissed as one-offs—oddities, expendables, a glimpse of people who just “don’t fit,” “don’t matter,” and “aren’t relevant.” I still wonder, hope maybe, that the representations in Crawdads and Vengeance will take up space in our memories, even if just a little, to influence the way we think about people in these regions. I also wonder if viewers’ ideas about racial identity will begin to turn over in their heads.
If Vengeance and Crawdads did not center Whites, one might think the subjects in the films were people of color in the U.S. Had they been, I wonder if we would have exited the theaters with our biases confirmed or challenged about these groups. Author Florentine Bakkenes writes in her 2022 Diggit Magazine article, that “The media people consume, the movies they watch, and the television series they follow, are not just entertainment, it also has an impact on the way people think and view other people.” In her 2018 New York Times article on what film teaches her about being a woman, film critic Manohla Dargis writes, “There isn’t a causal relationship between viewer behavior and the screen. There doesn’t have to be. Because movies get into our bodies, making us howl and weep, while their narrative and visual patterns, their ideas and ideologies leave their imprint.” In Crawdads and Vengeance, the characters are normal and/or heroic ones that display the depths of their humanity. They are loving, caring, funny, rude, smart, not-so-smart, good, bad, and all the gray areas in between. If the Shaws were Black and Kya was Latina, would this tickle viewers' sensibilities about the depth and breadth of the humanity of Blacks and Hispanics as a whole?
I love these films and my eyes watered as I left the theaters (particularly for Vengeance), because these were stories that needed to be told. Whites in rural areas are rarely centered and humanized in film, but Crawdads and Vengeance do a wonderful job of changing this trend. Having said this, I look forward to seeing similar cinematic presentations centering underrepresented people of color.
Vengeance brings to mind the film, Wind River, which is about the death of a Native American woman on a reservation in Wyoming and the reluctance of federal authorities in working the case. As in Vengeance, law enforcement was not interested in investigating the death of a woman of poor background in a rural area. Where the Crawdads Sing is reminiscent of the 1972 film, Sounder, starring Kevin Hooks as David Lee and the late and great Cicely Tyson as Rebecca. Set in the Deep South in the 1930s, the film is about Nathan Lee (played by Paul Winfield), a Black sharecropper who is wrongfully jailed for a crime he did not commit. I still remember the poignant scene where a sheriff’s deputy used a knife to cut holes into the beautifully frosted chocolate cake meant for Nathan, as his 10-year-old son David helplessly watched a symbol of his mother’s love for her husband be destroyed.
My recollection of the details of these films reinforces the point that film “imprints” itself, teaching us something about who we are and the circumstances of people with whom we have little if any sustained contact. While what we glean from the lessons vary depending upon our vantage point, experiences, and knowledge of the past, the depictions of people and circumstances have the power to inform, thus shaping our perspective. Sometimes film confirms our views and other times, its stories and depictions challenge them. In either case, good or bad, welcome or not, we are learning something.
Bakkenes, F. (2022). Diversity and Representation in TV and Movies and Why it Matters. Diggit
Boboltz, S and Yam, K. Why On-Screen Representation Actually Matters. The Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-on-screen-representation-matters_n_58aeae96e4b01406012fe49d
Boorman, J. (Director). (1972). Deliverance [Film]. Elmer Enterprises.
Dargis, M. (2018). What the Movies Taught Me About Being a Woman. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/30/movies/women-in-movies.html
Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and Dimed. Metropolitan Books.
Granik, D. (Director). (2010). Winter’s Bone [Film]. Anonymous Content.
Newman, O. (Director). (2022). Where the Crawdads Sing [Film]. Columbia Pictures.
Nichols, J. (Director). (2012). Mud [Film]. Everest Entertainment.
Novak, B. J. (Director). (2022). Vengeance [Film]. Blumhouse Productions.
Ritt, M. (Director). (1972). Sounder [Film]. Radnitz/Mattel Productions.
Sheridan, T. (Director). (2017). Wind River [Film]. Acacia Filmed Entertainment.