Precious: Based on the Story of Racism

It’s still another 3 months until the Oscars are handed out, but naturally buzz is building around certain films. I recently saw Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, a real contender that’s holding an impressive 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and garnered high acclaim at Sundance, TIFF, and Cannes. Precious portrays a year in the life of Claireece “Precious” Jones, an obese teenager growing up in Harlem in the late ’80s. I won’t record all the sordid details of her life — the molestations, pregnancies, diseases, handicaps, abuses, etc — but suffice to say that life is pretty shit for Precious. It’s a gripping viewing experience, albeit difficult to watch (multiple viewings are out of the question), and the acting by the leads is beyond reproach. Mo’Nique’s (Precious’ mother) final monologue is absolute killer and she deserves an Oscar nod for those minutes alone.

There are several problems here, a few of which started to surface while I was watching. Early on, I distinctly remember thinking, “This would be a terrible film to show to racists.” Some of my questions were further muddled by two writers who are among the few to categorically denigrate Precious. They are, respectively, “Pride & Precious” by Armond White, and “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” by Ed Gonzalez. [if you only read one of the two, read White’s]

Let me state up front that I am deliberately choosing to interact with two other writers because I do not feel capable on my own. As a privileged white male, I’m going to confess ignorance at the start and admit that I have more questions here than answers. However, even I have to start to wonder about rave reviews given to a film that unabashedly portrays an obese black girl stealing a bucket of fried chicken and devouring every piece herself.

Director Lee Daniels is not wholly unfamiliar with these charges of racism. “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.” So said Daniels to Lynn Hirschberg of the NYT, referencing the screening at Cannes (though after the screening, that crowd gave him a 15-minute standing ovation). This is, in fact, the charge that Armond White made against Precious: it’s racist to the core. The one-two punch:

But [Tyler] Perry and [Oprah] Winfrey [both producers on Precious] aren’t all that keep Precious from sinking into the ghetto of oblivion like such dull, bourgie, black-themed movies as The Great Debaters or The Pursuit of Happyness. That’s because the film’s writer-director Lee Daniels works the salacious side of the black strivers street. Daniels knows how to turn a racist trick. As producer of Monster’s Ball, Daniels symbolized Halle Berry’s ravishment as integration; Kevin Bacon titillated pedophilia in Daniels’ The Woodsman and Daniels’ directorial debut, Shadowboxing, hinted at interracial incest between stepmother and son Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Winfrey, Perry and Daniels make an unholy triumvirate.They come together at some intersection of race exploitation and opportunism. These two media titans, plus one shrewd pathology pimp, use Precious to rework Booker T. Washington’s early 20th-century manifesto Up From Slavery into extreme drama for the new millennium: Up From Incest, Child Abuse,Teenage Pregnancy, Poverty and AIDS. Regardless of its narrative details about class and gender, Precious is an orgy of prurience. All the terrible, depressing (not uplifting) things that happen to 16year-old Precious recall that memorable All About Eve line, “Everything but the bloodhounds nipping at her rear-end.”

I’ll admit that discovering, post-viewing, who the director was (esp. viz. The Woodsman) definitely made me re-think my initially positive take on the movie. But the charges of racism are made too lightly, especially since one African-American is accusing a whole cadre of other blacks (from Sapphire to Daniels to Mo’Nique, etc), not all of whom are as bourgeois as Winfrey, of deliberately making and promoting a deeply offensive film. The Who behind the What make a difference: this was not made by a pale-skinned trustafarian auteur from New England. Gonzalez goes so far as to admit Precious to the Stuff White People Like canon, all while seemingly ignoring the long list of black people intimately involved.

More baffling, however, is White’s assertion that Precious ought to be more like “excellent recent films with black themes: Next Day Air, Cadillac Records, Meet Dave, Norbit, Little Man, Akeelah and the Bee, First Sunday, The Ladykillers, Marci X, Palindromes, Mr. 3000…” Wait, what? Did he just exalt Norbit and Mr. 3000?! I have to think that these subvert White’s very point. The true racist wants his blacks either dead or deported. The socially-acceptable racist wants his blacks as either athletes, entertainers, or prisoners. “The Jolly Negro” stereotype seems just as offensive as the “Scary Ghetto Thug” stereotype. What Precious portrays, on the other hand, are some African-Americans doing quite poorly and some doing quite well. Some are illiterate, yes, but some key figures are what Sarah Palin might describe as “hoity-toity East Coast wine-sipping liberals.” The film predominantly features black women almost exclusively, playing protagonists and antagonists.

Ironically, this is part of what Ed Gonzalez finds offensive about Precious; that is, it writes whites completely out of the film. But my question (and I e-mailed Gonzalez to ask this, with no response) is: isn’t it more racist to write in Great White Saviors to swoop in and save Po’ Black Folk who can’t do anything right by themselves? I may have narrative objections to Precious — it is a “troubled teen saved by caring teachers” cliche, just drowning in 10x more graphic tragedy — but this is not the same as a moral objection. Gonzalez finds the film morally objectionable because it “panders” to my white prejudices and “flatters” my own self-righteous sense of white guilt. Let me tackle the latter first, because I am quite confused here. The problem is that I am entirely unsure what Gonzalez et al. want or expect me to feel. Supposedly I am not allowed to be horrified by this horrifying story, because that only typifies quaint liberal anxieties. Surely, however, Gonzalez would not suggest that I, instead, be apathetic or, God forbid, pleased at the terrible trials of Precious. Perhaps sometimes a cigar is just a cigar? Perhaps my repulsion & my empathy are simply the result of one human crying out for another human, and not symbolic of any larger movement — whether that of white male atoning for my ancestors or privileged liberal hopping onto the African-American political bandwagon.

Furthermore, there is the very real question of what White & Gonzalez feel that I, and people like me, are taking way from this film. Gonzalez says Precious panders or flatters my white prejudices, but without ever saying what those prejudices are. White is more explicit; for example, when he argues that non-blacks see Precious “as a credible depiction of black American life” and that “critics willingly infer there’s black life essence in Precious’ anti-life tale.” This is exactly where I get antsy. Because if it’s highly objectionable to take one story or person as emblematic or typical of an entire race or class (as White charges, and I concur), then I’d argue that’s it’s equally objectionable to assume that an entire other race or class is automatically understanding a story or person as such. That is, on what grounds is White arguing that I see Precious and her mother as representative of “what it means to be black” or “what it’s like growing up black in America”? Why is White so quick to assume that I am incapable of more nuanced thought? I did not see Deliverance and think, “Oh no, now African-Americans like Armond White will think all of us whites are filthy inbreeding hicks!” That would certainly insult White’s intelligence, as I feel he does mine when he assumes something similar about the “patronizing white folk” who love Precious. There are disgustingly violent rednecks in this country, just as there are people who resemble those in Precious.

It’s simply untenable for White to claim that black incest does not take place, that there are no illiterate obese teenagers, etc. If those people do exist, then telling their story seems like a valid endeavor. And that is the endeavor Precious undertakes, for better or worse. The film raises some great questions, and was definitely sobering and thought-provoking. I am not sure it is quite the masterpiece the cheerleaders say it is (perhaps some other time I can discuss its technical merits), but neither can I yet see how Precious is as racist & exploitative as its critics charge.

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