Black viewers are divided on film's 'Precious'-ness

Long before it opened, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" had racked up plaudits for its groundbreaking depiction of the inner life of a black, overweight, ghetto-dwelling teenage girl. But since its release, a story-outside-the-story has developed that's equally fresh and complicated: black people's reaction to the movie and what it means.


FOR THE RECORD:
'Precious': An article last Sunday about reaction to the movie "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" referred to the comments of a blogger named Tiffany on the website Racialicious.com. She made the remarks on freshxpress.com. —



Verdicts about high-pitched movies from black viewers and public figures are usually swift and decisive -- "Do the Right Thing," "The Color Purple," and the recent Robert Downey Jr. performance in "Tropic Thunder" come to mind. But that's not what happened this time out. That's partly because the embrace of "Precious" by the white film establishment has been a bit disorienting for black folk, even off-putting. But it's also because the tough stuff in "Precious," whether you like the movie or not, is striking chords of recognition for many black people that are making them not angry or enthusiastic, but uncertain. That's new territory.

The many issues raised in the course of this one story -- class tensions, self-image, racial progress, how Hollywood bears on all of the above -- have hit black viewers squarely in the gut, rendering the usual right-brain arguments about stereotypes inadequate. For black filmgoers, assessing black-themed films is generally a political process; "Precious" has made it emotional.

That discomfit was evident recently in a packed theater with a largely black audience in Marina Del Rey. The viewers were characteristically vocal at first -- gasping, clucking tongues, even tittering at the initial haplessness of Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and the villainy of her mother, played by Mo'Nique. But as the film got more intimate, zeroing in on issues such as Precious' illiteracy, the repeated rapes by her drop-in father and her casual wish to be white with "good" hair, people fell silent; it was as if they were no longer viewers, but participants.

They applauded at the end, but filed out of the theater much more soberly than I've ever seen a black audience file out of any performance, especially one that had a clear impact. It's quite a contrast to reviews and commentary that ranged from supportive to effusive on black-oriented websites including The Loop21.com, Racial icious.com and thegrio.com. But even the praise has a bit of apology about it, as if to allow for the fact that blacks can -- or perhaps even should -- admire "Precious" without necessarily liking it.

Not everybody is buying into the nuance. The unrelenting inner-city misery that frames "Precious," including a foul-mouthed welfare mother and an absentee father, has raised plenty of alarms among blacks, notably film critic Armond White. In his review for the New York Press, the famously curmudgeonly White excoriated "Precious" for being an "orgy of prurience," "a Klansman's fantasy," racist propaganda cast from the infamous mold of "Birth of a Nation." For White, "Precious" is bad art because it is a bad representation, a reminder that for black people, art and politics are inseparable.

Yet one of the unusual things about "Precious" is that it doesn't try to separate those things, and so forces us to think beyond the negative/positive binary that often keeps discussions about movies like this airless and superficial.

Certainly other black people share White's condemnation. But that condemnation has dimensions: C. Jeffrey Wright, writing at UrbanFaith.com, a conservative Christian site, fretted less about the images in "Precious" than about the fact there are too few black films released to provide a diversity that would make the movie less controversial. That's a fact nobody on any side of the discussion would disagree with.

Nonetheless, Wright decries the movie for its lack of what he calls "achiever values." And here we get into the thorny issue of class. For black people that means not solely money and education, but a concern about how we are being represented in public. How blacks are represented in movies always galvanizes such concern, and "Precious" is no exception.

"We just don't want to see black pathology on screen," says T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, a professor of critical race studies and hip-hop at Vanderbilt University. "There's clearly a segment of us that worries about what white people think."

That worry, she says, is usually about representations of the black poor, a group that's long been an anathema to whites -- and to some blacks as well. "Precious" exposes that unflattering divide. "Americans despise poor people, and they really despise poor black people," Sharpley-Whiting says. "Unfortunately, we [black people] buy into it."

Widespread debate

The good news is that the Internet encouragesa broader discussion of these complexities than black people have had in the past. At thefreshx press.com, a site geared to young African Americans, one blogger who had read White's review but hadn't seen the movie wrote that he was leery of incest being portrayed as a "black" thing, but he supported a filmmaker's right to tell his own story.

Another objected to White's comparing "Precious" to "Birth of a Nation," saying that missed the real critique the film was making about the troubled internal dynamics of black communities. "We've made a lot of strides, but what are we really doing to bring those who haven't been as fortunate as our college-educated selves out of the gutter?" she wrote. "This is a very real opportunity to bring a very real problem into the mainstream where it belongs."

At Racialicious.com, a blogger named Tiffany grumbled that she was "tired of the black aristocracy getting up in arms about anything that isn't 'The Cosby Show.' " Ironically, White himself bolsters that point: When he huffs in his review that " 'Precious' hyperbolizes the class misery of our nation's left-behinds . . . the Obama-era unreachables," he's at least acknowledging those unreachables and their plight.

But how can that plight be authentically represented? Is it ever possible for a black character -- dark, light, poor, privileged, whatever -- to vault above, or through, the stereotypes and emerge chiefly as a person and not a trope? Rarely. "Precious" breaks that ground, but it feels like alien terrain because blacks have been defined by extremes for so long. In an interview with Essence.com, director Lee Daniels says the harsh themes of "Precious" should be taken at face value. "Life is life," he said. "Life is what it is."

But grim subjects such as institutional poverty, illiteracy, child rape and incest are reasons enough to stay away from any movie, and many black folks say they will bypass "Precious" for that reason -- too much of that trouble in real life, they say.

Richard Yarborough, an associate professor of English and African American Studies at UCLA, says there might be something else to the aversion for not just blacks, but all Americans. "The abject degradation of black people in 'Precious' is as close as you can get to a modern film that may be similar to a film about slavery," says Yarborough. He points out that slave-era films such as "Beloved" and " Amistad" didn't do well at the box office, and those were mainstream movies with big budgets and established directors. Those movies also presented widespread black exploitation and oppression as phenomena of the past; "Precious" has no such buffer.

"If people aren't going to see slavery in a historical context, why would they go see a movie about slavery in a modern context?" says Yarborough. He adds that the legacy of slavery -- racism -- is another issue that feels much too close for movie-watching comfort. "Racism is not dead," he says. "The immediacy of racism and the pressure it still puts on [blacks] is tremendous. We're still arguing about the Confederacy flag."

Despite these macro-level realities, it's nice to contemplate the possibility that "Precious" could start a new trend of black movies that are more individual-oriented and inward-looking. Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, says that will only happen if "Precious" makes the kind of money that Hollywood can't ignore. It grossed an impressive $11 million on 629 screens last weekend.

But, he says, don't hold your breath. One of the enduring truths about the movie business is that even a widely acclaimed black movie made by blacks doesn't guarantee that another one will be made, let alone start a trend.

"What Spike Lee was doing in the '80s was more challenging and visionary [than 'Precious'] -- and he talked stuff while he did it," says Boyd. "He's still working, he's still making movies. But nobody talks about Spike anymore. With features, it's about the money vehicles now, like what Tyler Perry is doing. The days of the small 'impact' film are over."

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