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COMMENTARY

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

Though it has been adored in some quarters, the film has its detractors. One critic has dubbed it 'a Klansman's fantasy.'

November 29, 2009|By Erin Aubry Kaplan
  • EMOTIONAL: The film, which stars Gabourey Sidibe, has drawn some ire.
EMOTIONAL: The film, which stars Gabourey Sidibe, has drawn some ire. (Lionsgate )

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

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