The reactions to Lee Daniels' Precious keep coming, and the results are as varied as the writers. How can one film reinforce pathology, provide a fairy-tale ending, and upend the traditional stories of how women move up in the world?
It all depends on whom is asked the question.
To Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post, the film is yet another negative portrayal of blackness for white consumption. He scoffs at the idea Precious is a relateable movie, saying:
The New York Times Magazine featured the movie as a cover story last month and declared: "Precious is a stand-in for anyone — black, white, male, female — who has ever been devalued or underestimated."
Let's see: I lose my job, so I take in a movie about a serially abused black girl and I go, "Oh, swell, she's standing in for me."
Maybe there is something to the notion that when human pathology is given a black face, white people don't have to feel so bad about their own. At least somebody's happy.
After pointing out that sexual abuse is an cross-cultural issue, he then turns his attention to Oprah:
Asked by Entertainment Weekly magazine why she got involved with the project, Oprah said: "I realized that, Jesus, I have seen that girl a million times. I see that girl every morning on the way to work, I see her standing on the corner, I see her waiting for the bus as I'm passing in my limo, I see her coming out of the drugstore, and she's been invisible to me."
Instead of making a movie about how she beat the odds, Oprah has taken to divining ugly life stories from black girls she passes in her limo. Maybe the Obama girls should stay off the sidewalk for a while.
In "Precious," Oprah and Perry have helped serve up a film of prurient interest that has about as much redeeming social value as a porn flick.
Milloy's contempt is counterbalanced by Sapphire's comments in today's New York Times. She tells Richard Bernstein a little more about how Precious is positioned in both the book and the movie:
There's a message in this, and Sapphire, whom I spoke to on the phone this week, wrote her book to get it across. There are many abused young women stuck in the hidden crevices of urban American life, and they need what Precious gets if they are to have a chance to turn their lives around.
"I really wanted to show a young woman who changes her life without falling in love and without getting married," Sapphire told me, "and without plastic surgery or a physical change."
In other words, she didn't want Precious to succeed via some sort of near magical and unlikely intervention, like losing a hundred pounds and actually looking like Cinderella. "I wanted to show how somebody can take concrete steps and work on her deficiencies and move her life forward," she said, "which is what millions of women are going to have to do."
Sapphire's take adds yet another dimension to the book that is often lost in the events of the plot - the reality of the matter is that unlike in a movie (where the perfect man will save you) or on a reality show (where if you lose weight or get plastic surgery, your whole life improves), most people do not have the luxury of waiting around for a savior. Sapphire then explains:
"She doesn't achieve this through romance," Sapphire said, "or through finding a boyfriend, or losing a hundred pounds, but through literacy, some friends, her loving relationship with her child. That's why it's the cultural event of the season."
True. But even seen though this lens, Precious has some detractors. Malika Saada Saar, founder of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, provides a painful reality check when she writes "this movie is in many ways a fairy tale:"
The character Precious gets to be saved by a caring caseworker and a loving teacher. In real life, poor, undereducated and sexually victimized girls are most likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
I see it all the time. There is the 13-year-old who became pregnant to stop her uncle from raping her — a girl whom I met not at an incest survivors group but in a girls' detention facility. Or the girl raped so many times by age 13 that she feels worthy of being prostituted and cannot see a life for herself beyond jail. Or the girl who was kidnapped by a pimp, repeatedly raped by him, prostituted by him — only to be arrested and placed behind bars for prostitution.
Girls in the United States are subject to violence with horrifying frequency. One in three American girls will experience sexual violence by age 18, regardless of race or class. Girls ages 16 to 19 across the ethnic and economic spectrum are four times more likely than others to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. No girl is safe from being raped, exploited or abused.
Yet when girls in economically stable families are hurt by sexual violence, the protective layers of functional schools, safe neighborhoods and access to mental-health services tend to buffer them from further exploitation. For girls at the margins, sexual violence often funnels them into the criminal justice system.
So, what does one make of a film like Precious? It really depends on experiences within your own life.
A film as lost as the girl it glorifies [Washington Post]
A Movie With a New Message [New York Times]
Official Site [Rebecca Project for Human Rights]
'Precious' girls without a happy ending [Washington Post]
Related: Of Push, Precious, Percival, and "My Pafology" [Racialicious]