Thoughts on ‘Precious’

Posted on November 19, 2009 at 3:59 pm

“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” has been warmly embraced by audiences and critics since it first appeared in festivals. Two of the biggest media powerhouses in the world, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, signed on as producers after the film was completed to help ensure its distribution and box office. Ninety percent of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes have given the film a positive review. I gave it an A- .

But I find some of the criticism and commentary on the film very thoughtful and the issues raised well worth discussion. In my own review, I raised the question of what is sometimes referred to as “poverty porn.” It can be hard to draw a line between what is exploitative and what is sensitive and illuminating. The movie is based on the best-seller Push (re-named Precious to tie in with the movie), by the poet Sapphire, inspired by the girls she worked with as a teacher.


One of my favorite critics, Dana Stevens of Slate, made some of the strongest objections to the movie. She says the director’s “methodical commitment to abjection, his need to shove the reality of Precious’ life in our faces and wave it around till we acknowledge its awfulness, winds up robbing the audience (and, to some extent, the actors) of all agency….But in offering up their heroine’s misery for the audience’s delectation, created something uncomfortably close to poverty porn.”

Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy strongly objected to the film. “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 is critical of the plaudits from mostly-white audiences and of Winfrey and Tyler who rhapsodize about the small achievements of the downtrodden heroine instead of telling their own stories of unparalleled fame and fortune.

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.

Sexual abuse is certainly an equal-opportunity crime, with black and white women similarly affected. But only exaggerated black depravity seems to resonate so forcefully in the imagination.

White suburban boys are so fascinated by it that they fueled an explosion of gangsta rap — misogynistic lyrics against a backdrop of booty-shaking black women.

I think this is an over-reaction, and in parts just wrong. Stories are a way of helping us make sense of the world by imposing a sense of certainty, logic, and meaning that often eludes us in life. Therefore, they are often melodramatic, exaggerated, and unrealistic. They often focus on suffering and on exaggerated depravity and very often rich white people are doing the suffering or bearing up under the depravity. Look at soap operas. Or any given episode of “Law and Order.” And white suburban boys can bear only a portion of the blame for gangsta rap. The rest goes to the perpetrators. There is an unforgettable moment in the Jay-Z documentary “Fade to Black” when two aspiring rap stars admit they feel queasy about writing songs that glorify violence and misogyny but do it to make money.

Frequent provocateur Armond White is one of the film’s harshest critics. He objects to the way that after it was completed Winfrey and Perry signed on as “producers” because it fit with their own narratives of triumph over abuse and poverty. “Promoting this movie isn’t just a way for Perry and Winfrey to aggrandize themselves, it helps convert their private agendas into heavily hyped social preoccupation.” He calls director Lee Daniels a “pathology pimp” and says that the movie is “an orgy of prurience.” He criticizes the film for “cast light-skinned actors as kind (schoolteacher Paula Patton, social worker Mariah Carey, nurse Lenny Kravitz and an actual Down syndrome child as Precious’ first-born) and dark-skinned actors as terrors” and says that the daydreams Precious has about being adored on a black carpet “sells materialist fantasy as a universal motivation.”

He concludes his review:

Worse than Precious itself was the ordeal of watching it with an audience full of patronizing white folk at the New York Film Festival, then enduring its media hoodwink as a credible depiction of black American life. A scene such as the hippopotamus-like teenager climbing a K-2 incline of tenement stairs to present her newborn, incest-bred baby to her unhinged virago matriarch, might have been met howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem’s Magic Johnson theater. Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation, whereas too many white film habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority–and relief–it allows them to feel. Some people like being conned.

White’s point about the skin color of the movie’s characters is echoed in an essay by Jada F. Smith on The Root. Also on The Root, Deborah Douglas criticizes the film for its portrayal of incest, contrary to what statistics show about the far greater likelihood of abuse by a step-father or brother than by a biological father. And Salamishah Tillet compares the response to this film to the more critical reaction to another movie about an abused teenager impregnated through incest, “The Color Purple.”

I suspect the greater outcry about “The Color Purple” was in part because while it was based on a book by a black woman, the movie was made by a white man. But “Precious” director Lee Daniels is black. There is always more leeway for anyone telling a story about his or her own ethnic and cultural group.

I think that Stevens makes some good points and the issue of the characters’ skin color seems a valid one, though Mo’Nique’s skin is much lighter than Gabourey Sidibe’s. While I like the way he writes and admire the intensity of his engagement, I do not agree with White’s comments about “materialist fantasy.” A key theme of the movie (as in many movies) was the heroine’s realization that the limited fantasy life she had based on television did not offer the satisfaction of real achievement and real relationships.

I really like the commentary from another of my favorite critics, Teresa Wiltz, also on The Root. She gets it exactly right when she reminds us to focus on the characters in the story rather than trying to make them stand for some major cultural conclusions.

deserves every bit of attention that it gets. But there’s something discomfiting about her declarations that “We are all Precious.” In short, she Oprah-fies Precious, rendering Precious’ fierce individuality the stuff of platitudes and Stuart moments on SNL.

No, we are not all Precious. We all get our power from the individuality of our stories. Precious stands alone.

Wiltz and Smith are featured in an NPR interview about “Precious” as well.

If you see the movie or if you or someone you care about is dealing with issues of abuse, please visit Beliefnet’s prayer wall inspired by the story. And if that abuse is in the present, please take inspiration from the story of Precious and get help now.

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