Cultural Critique / Movie Reviews / The Color Line

Oh How ‘Precious’

Precious 1There are only two movies in my lifetime that I ever cried on–or rather allowed myself to cry on.  The reuniting scene of Celie and Nettie in “The Color Purple” was the first one at age ten when I snuck and finished watching the movie and was careful to keep my back turned so my parents wouldn’t know I cried over it, and last night the movie “Precious” prompted me to shed a tear.

In short, “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” is the story of 1987 Harlem with an overweight, daresay obese, black, dark-skinned, teenage girl who has been impregnated twice by her father and lives in an apartment with here extremely abusive mother, named Mary, who not only hurls vehement verbal assaults against her, but indeed commits extreme physical violence against her own daughter.  This is the basic story line of a tranche de vie movie that doesn’t have a simple plot line per se, but seeks to tell a story.  The movie was adopted from the novel Push by the author Sapphire.

I had heard the hype about the movie and how it got rave reviews at the Sundance Movie Festival, and I heard two interviews on NPR from the director Lee Daniels and from the author Sapphire herself.  But much more I hadn’t heard prior to the opening weekend one week ago from the date of this blog post.  That being said, I had seen the trailers, and had heard that it shattered box office expectations last week with its limited release, and last night it was a sold out crowd in the movie house.

What has surfaced was a chorus of harsh criticism that at the base is alleging exploitation of the stereotypical “big, black and ugly” black woman.  Leading the pack has been Armond White with his online review or just as harshly Anthony Smith with his title “‘Precious’ Fails the Black Community” and of course some others throughout the online world have touted this as nothing more than “poverty porn.”  I think what this highlights above nothing else is the vast class differences amongst our own community.

Oprah and Tyler PerryAside from the run-of-the-mill hating that most blacks heap upon Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry for various and sundry reasons, what I noticed was that largely the black community doesn’t know how to handle a “Precious” motif.  Smith wrote

Yet in marketing the motion picture “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphired, the producer and director, Lee Daniels boldy affirms that, “I know this chick.  You know her.  But we just choose not to know her.” Rather by choice or circumstance, let me be the first to say that I do not know Precious, and I have a hunch that most other black Americans don’t know her, either.”

For those that “don’t know Precious” I must ask the questions why don’t you know her, and what’s so wrong with getting to know her?  In the grand scheme of things, why many (I won’t say most) black Americans don’t know “Precious” is because of the vast class differences in which many of exist.

Now the movie had interesting cinematography which made it borderline documentary to some sort of Disney channel show; showing the various mental breaks with reality that Precious had when she had her various low moments such as her raping her.  The movie went from the stark reality of life to her being some glizty and glamorous showstopper on the red carpet or dancing in a ball room–all accompanied by her light skinned boyfriend.  But, I think that’s reality.  Too many in the theaters actually laughed at those scenes because of the perceived idiocy of the idea of a big, dark skinned female being able to walk a red carpet, or to even have a light skinned boyfriend.  There was the ballroom scene and the imaginary boyfriend was licking her in the ear, and the audience responded with an “ewwww” especially the two young women sitting next to me.  I couldn’t help but wonder if a Shemar Moore was licking the ear of a Nicole Ari Parker if the “ewwwws” would have turned into sensual “ooooohs.”

What I’m saying is that society has made “Precious” a caricature and exploitative, not the director Lee Daniels and certainly not executive producers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey.  And in Oprah’s defense, we all know her story, she was told as a youngster that she was “too big” and “too black” so why would anyone be shocked at her support of this movie.  I think this movie offends the sensibilities of too many middle class blacks.  It automatically makes them thankful for their current situation which really sets up a judgmental ideal of really saying “I’m glad I’m not the ‘other.’”  Moreover, middle class blacks in order to remain in relative comfort must view “Precious” as a caricature in order to maintain their own sanity and not be consumed by guilt.

And let’s be clear about the caricature status because it’s essentially declaring “Precious” as not real.  If middle class blacks can somehow see the “Precious” motif as not real, then the rest of the movie and the rest of life is viewed as mere hyperbole and unrealistic and really not worthy of our time and effort.  This is an easy jump for many middle class blacks who had to drive into the inner cities to movie theaters that actually were showing the movies because many of them were driving back to the suburban and ex-urban homes never to think about this movie again.  This idea is supported by Smith who writes:

This film is as dangerous as it is offensive, and it is not representative of any community, past or present. The narrative about a young, unloved victim is intellectually and socially dishonest. Daniels relies on overly objectionable imagery and perverse cinematic devices to provoke emotion from the audience, all the while offering no true explanation of events, no link between cause and effect, no solution and no opportunity to deliberate, just action — vile, disgusting, and inhumane acts of violence, apathy, abuse and rape. [emphasis added]

I think what’s at issue is that blacks are still struggling for a unified identity that always pits a “The PJs” versus “The Cosby Show” dichotomy.  While this movie highlights stereotypes such as Precious stealing a bucket of fried chicken–because her mother didn’t have food in the refrigerator–middle class blacks seems to forget that indeed this is a lived reality for many people.  We can get too caught up in trying to portray the Cosby’s not just for the sake of white sensibilities, but also for our own appeasement.  I’m of the school of thought that we must continue to hold the mirror up to ourselves and use it not just as a reflecting tool, but as a correcting tool.

If we would believe those of the Smith and White camps, they would have you believe that “Precious” is a machination of Perry, Winfrey and Daniels for the sake of capitalizing on black stereotypes just to make an easy buck and shift our collective concerns away from real issues.  Neither of them suggest indeed what the real issues are and come off as two individuals so secluded in the ivory tower that if “Precious” walked up to them, they’d dismiss her as a figment of their imagination.

Precious 2 - Mo'NiqueOn the other hand,I chalked up the roles of Ms. Rain, the welfare social worker and the obstetric nurse played by Paula Patton, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz respectively as yet again real life.  All of the nice people in this movie were played by comparatively light skinned individuals.  Some took issue with casting as such, but first, I was so rocked by the performances of Mo’Nique as Mary, the mother of Precious and of Gabourey Sibide as Precious, that I didn’t even really notice skin color until I saw a tweet from Thembi who made note of it.  In real life, light skinned people tend to be in the upper ranks of the society.

Seriously, drive through the local hood of your city, town or hamlet and tell me how many light skinned people do you see standing on the street corner?

Granted this movie might have been cinematically schizophrenic from the relative high comedic moments of the other girls in the remedial reading class at the alternative school from both Joanna (who I might add with her dress looked more circa 2009 than 1987) and from the Jamaican student named Rhonda, to the low moments when you could clearly see Mary having had a break with reality and how Precious was forced to navigate the waters of living with a mentally insane, it was indeed, reality.  Some took issue that this movie had no ending and was very open ended, to those I simply ask, is that not life?  Life never truly answers questions, we want it to, we at times need it to, but just like Precious, we take what we have and we walk off into the unknown unaware of what the future holds, just desperately hoping and praying that we know the One who holds the future.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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6 thoughts on “Oh How ‘Precious’

  1. You probably know where I stand here without saying, but I will anyway. Precious is very real, alive, and sadly thriving in our urban cores. While the extreme depravity of her life may not be common, the depravity and tribulation she faces is quite prevalent. While I deplore extolling the ‘it takes a village’ cliche, most children born into the chaos similar to hers need far more than a caring teacher/social worker to survive their childhood safely and civilly. Instead of seeing a few celebrities show up at a women’s shelter or wear the color du jour t-shirt for this cause, ‘pass the hat’ and open up some group/foster home/boarding schools staffed by quality, committed, and caring adults vs. the low-wage, minimally skilled job-seekers overseen by a Dickensian profiteer masquerading as child-centered caring adult.

    • @ adinasi

      And I think the end of the movie was proof-positive that it doesn’t end with a social worker or a caring teacher. That in fact, Precious disappears into the crowds with a nine-month old baby and a toddler with Down syndrome and we have NO idea where she went off to–and she’s only 17! What the movie showed was the bare minimum required: Precious was able to leave the house of a mentally ill mother and begin to see a future for herself past the next five minutes.

  2. Great review.

    I was very uncomfortable with the laughter from the audience. I know that the comedic interruptions allowed for easier viewing of a difficult story, but I was much more moved after reading the book than I was after seeing the movie. I don’t actually blame this on Daniels, but instead the surrounding audience who seemed unaware of how deep the plot and subplots of the movie went. (Laughing at a bunch of 16-year olds who are just learning their ABC is tragic to me.

    The most encouraging theme of the story is intervention and neighborly concern. Precious was able to find a better circumstance because of opportunities, both big and smalle – her math teacher’s recommendation, her principle stopping by the house to give her the name of the alternative school, Ms. Blu’s consistent reinforcement of self-worth, or the social workers insistence of identifying the home life issues. I think if people begin to think of themselves as potential catalysts for positively changing the lives of others, even in the smallest ways, the fruits of our efforts will be bountiful.

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