What We Talk About When We Talk About Precious

The buzz about Precious has continued steadily since its premiere at the Sundance film festival. As we creep toward the November 6th release date, I'm wondering how the reviews reflect the themes surrounding the movie - both intentionally and unintentionally.

I want to be clear about some things up front. While I am familiar with the plot and premise of the book, I have not read Sapphire's Push, the book the film is based on, and I have not yet seen Precious. By next week, I will have done both.

However, I have been following the coverage of the film since Sundance, ever since Postbourgie contributor SLB wrote a post called "Reveling in Bleakness" detailing her personal feelings about the novel. Following the conversation on Postbourgie, and our conversation on Racialicious, I realized that a lot of what has been written isn't so much about the issues discussed in the film, but our perceptions of race, class, pathology, and stereotypes.

Claudia, a commenter at PostBourgie, neatly summarized quite a few of the reactions:

Has anyone else here read Percival Everett's Erasure?

If not, I highly recommend it. My understanding is that some of the satire and criticism in Everett's book were inspired by Push. I am as undecided as many of the previous comments on the wisdom of bringing this work to the big screen. Generally, though, I tend to side with Everett's view in questioning who exactly benefits from such deeply painful cautionary tales of black life. We most definitely shouldn't shy away from black hardship and the real-life stories of suffering. But I wonder if novels like Push, that offer an almost hyper-real simulation of reality – what do they ultimately achieve?

Ironically, I remember back when folks had some of the same issues with the film version of The Color Purple, and I am a huge admirer of the book and the movie. So I probably need to think this through a little more (smile).

Lola, commenting at Racialicious, simply wrote:

I can't read things like this. They hurt to much, it is too personal.

The conversation, however, quickly took a familiar turn. How do we articulate our personal truth if our words and lives are filtered, pushed through a majority lens, and regurgitated as stereotypes?

cocomala:

yes, but why it then that our media is so obsessed with the negative portrayals of black women and men? why should this story get the greenlight?

where are the counterbalancing roles in movies starring black women who achieve success and satisfaction due to community/ parental guidance, love and care? where are any movies starring black women in positive roles this year? Okay, Cadillac Records, um Good Hair is coming out… oh, The Secret Life of Bees…anything else? …maybe The Family that Preys…

atlasien:

In a lot of movies, I think black women's suffering is pushed off to the sidelines or used just to underline the experience of a white heroine. So I can see how a movie where that suffering is made absolutely central and really extreme could possibly represent a welcome break from a stereotype… even if it's also incredibly depressing.

yesand...:

I don't know if I'm as worried about it being sanitized as I am about it black suffering being fetishized by a white audience, due to this "white guilt" that is (apparently) providing all the "hope" (money) to get these stories to the mainstream. [...]

For the black community, these kinds of narratives are for feeling a sense of collective struggle, a sense of identification in a world that seems hopeless. For (privileged) whites, it's about living the fantasy of a "just world" that is independent of their behavior, which alleviates their guilt and justifies passivity and the status quo. This is why I am not so happy about all of this paternalistic coziness with the "black" struggle all of a sudden. It reeks of fetish, it reeks of self-serving smugness. It doesn't really look like understanding to me.

Rchoudh:

While it's good to show both negative and positive descriptions of life within all communities, American films have a tendency to show both positive and negative descriptions of white American life. For every depressing story about white America you have in films like Revolutionary Road, you get many more fun-filled humorous stories in rom-coms like He's just not that into you and so forth. There's no such balance like this when it comes to stories depicting POC characters. While you have an overwhelming number of negative descriptions you have a dearth of positive descriptions where POC's play the main characters and where their positive stories become crossover successes with all audiences, whites included. I think that's why I'm reluctant to see yet another depressing movie starring POC's.

Browne:

Of course this is going to get funded. It's poverty, racially charged porn.

People watch these movies and it makes it seem that everyone who is poor has these insanely horrible lives and the poverty is owing only to these horrible parents and a horrible unsupportive community.

It's too damn easy.

I would like to see the character who plays Precious being cast as a normal teenager. That would be ground breaking, this is not groundbreaking from what I've seen. I know what's it is going to be and I don't look forward to it.

It's not about me wanting something to be positive, but I don't want my race to be used to make a point. While this is a movie about class, no one is going to see it that way it's going to be seen as a slice of black life and that's why I don' t like it.

Ultimately, there were some 130 comments debating the film.

I'll be curious to see what people say in the comments on the NY Times' website. Reading through the paper's new Sunday Magazine cover story, "The Audacity of Precious," my feeling of discomfort grew and grew. By the end of the six page feature, I started to feel that the writer, Lynn Hirschberg, was less interested in talking about a movie and more interested in observing the interesting "other." How did I know that this sentence...

He was dressed unremarkably in a loose, untucked shirt and slouchy khaki pants, but his hair, an electric corona of six-inch fusilli-like spirals, demanded notice.

...would lead to this one?

"I decided I should cut my hair," Daniels said, running his hand over his closely cropped head. The dreadlocks were gone. Daniels no longer looks like a wild child, but older, more sober.

Or phrases like:

Yet the movie is not neutral on the subject of race and the prejudices that swirl around it, even in the supposedly postracial age of Obama.

And:

Like the Jewish immigrants who created the movie business in Hollywood, Daniels has the will and the perspective of an outsider.

This one was particularly interesting, as Lee Daniel's isn't quite an outsider. He's been working in the business since 1983, and his former partner and father of his children is Billy Hopkins, an A-list casting director. Perhaps Daniels still feels like an outsider, but from reading the full piece, I feel like the writer was trying to play up as many differences as she could, providing a voyeuristic view of Daniels and the film's other main players.

Both Daniels and actress/comedian Mo'Nique say that part of them gravitated to the film because of their own histories with abuse by family members. (Also, despite prominently displaying the other lead actress, Gabourey Sidibe, on the cover, the article barely mentions her.) When the NYT's Hirshberg asks Mo'Nique to discuss the part, she responds:

In part, Mo'Nique was intrigued by the role of Mary Jones because, she says, she was abused by a brother when she was a young girl. The abuse supposedly began when Mo'Nique was 7 and continued for four years. "We wanted people to see the illness," Mo'Nique explained. "Lee said, be a monster. And my brother was that monster to me. When Lee said, ‘Action,' that's who I became."

However, there isn't much discussion about the issues of literacy, obesity, incest, HIV/AIDS or Down's Syndrome in the article. Abuse only merits three small paragraphs. While Precious puts forth an array of issues, these are not engaged with by the reviewers. Is it because of the heaviness of the subject matter? Perhaps. But I find it interesting that I have seen more discussion of Mariah Carey appearing without make-up than any discussion of the underlying issues in the film. However, in the NYT piece, the director, Lee Daniels, makes a lot of interesting admissions:

"As African-Americans, we are in an interesting place," Daniels said. "Obama's the president, and we want to aspire to that. But part of aspiring is disassociating from the face of Precious. To be honest, I was embarrassed to show this movie at Cannes. I didn't want to exploit black people. And I wasn't sure I wanted white French people to see our world." He paused. "But because of Obama, it's now O.K. to be black. I can share that voice. I don't have to lie. I'm proud of where I come from. And I wear it like a shield. ‘Precious' is part of that."

"I am so used to having two faces," he said, as if to explain his theatrical shifts in mood. "A face that I had for black America and a face for white America. When Obama became president, I lost both faces. Now I only have one face. But old habits die hard, and sometimes I can't remember who I'm supposed to be."

"I knew killers. My uncle, who took care of me, murdered people, and yet he took care of me too. People who have gone to jail for murder are also human. Black people are not all saints."

"My sister was an obese crack addict," Daniels said. "She had a chicken wing in one hand and a crack pipe in the other, and yet she had a line of white men waiting for her.

"Even the most evil person was somebody's baby at one time. And that's where life is lived. I've never been that comfortable with black and white."

To be honest, I'm not quite sure what to make of Lee Daniels, with the multiple references to Obama and the chicken/crack pipe comment. I started to get the impression from the article that he believes he is representing blackness - and from the readers comments at Racialicious and Postbourgie, this is the epitome of what many do not want the audience to walk away with. Also, Daniels comments seem to reveal a lot of personal shame and struggle wrapped up in race, so much so that discussions of class or cycles of poverty and abuse were completely overshadowed.

Is the goal here to tell a story? To illuminate systemic issues? Or to put forth a new view on blackness?

I am not sure, and I don't think I will ever be. Movies are subjective things, and are highly subject to the viewers interpretation. So even if Daniels' intended the movie to be a portrait of black like that isn't part of the "Huxtable/Cosby world," is that how the audience will interpret it?

Still, I look forward to seeing the film, and this statement, also from Daniels, explains why:

People read so much into ‘Precious.' But at the end, it's just this girl, and she's trying to live. I know this chick. You know her. But we just choose not to know her."

Precious [Official Site]
The Audacity Of Precious [NY Times]
Reveling In Bleakness. [Postbourgie]
Reveling In Bleakness [Racialicious]