Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Precious: The Debate

The film Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, with it's awkward and tongue twisting title has been a subject of debate and a certain level of resistance since it opened last November. Now that film scored six Oscar nominations, including best picture, that debate has perhaps reached it apex. On February 4, two days after the nominations were revealed, writer Ishmael Reed wrote an Op-Ed column in The New York Times, criticizing the film for reinforcing black stereotypes and accused the film of making middle class white audiences feel good about themselves, and that the film was made more so for them, than any black community. Reed writes:

"In guilt-free bits of merchandise like “Precious,” white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans."

He continues by stating that the film has only been publicly endorsed by white audience, since it's debut in Sundance (where the film won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, the first time in that's festival's history), to the white critics that phrased it on it's marketing material, all the way the AMPAS that nominated it for best picture. Reed also comments on the theme of incest in the film, questioning whether that's a predominately African American trait, and the problem with indoctrinating the title character in "white"-endorsed educational society, the one form of redemption in Clareece "Precious" Jones' life.

I've heard murmurs of controversy over Precious in newspaper articles and online tirades ever since the film opened, but I think Mr. Reed is overreaching here on more than a couple of levels. And the first thing is, how many white characters are there in Precious, I personally remember only one-- the female director of the school that Clareece (Gabourey Sidibe) gets kicked out of at the beginning. But that small part is really isn't the point. The characters that really help Precious get out of monstrous home life are her teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) and Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey), last time I checked neither Patton nor Carey were white. But I digress, I don't really see how a film like Precious seems to exist only to make white audience members feel good about themselves. I liked the movie a lot, but honestly, as a white audience member it wasn't exactly a happy movie going experience. It's brutal, but felt honest.

And I think that's where the problem lies-- possibly it feels to honest. The performances, especially those from Sidibe, as the victimized and abused and Mo'Nique as the abuser are so nakedly up there on the screen that it's hard for it not to come off incendiary. But the two actresses never fall into the realm of cliche poor "ghetto" folk. The point of Precious is not in she's illiterate, or that her father raped her (illiteracy and incest have never been purely black or white problems, they're universal, they just happen to be hers), the point is finding redemption in oneself over adversity. Clareece does this by writing, and as the film progresses she becomes better and more eloquent; she's not necessarily getting schooled by a purely "white" curriculum, as Mr. Reed asserts in comparing the film to the Michelle Pfieffer film Dangerous Minds, but in it she seeks out the confidence to rid herself from the abuse.

In truth, the film is a bit muddled and visually schizophrenic, but I forgive it because of it's performances and the enthusiasm that director Lee Daniels exhibits-- he knows the right points when to hold back, and where to let it go without a net. And in the truth, and faux happy ending is entirely that, Precious, in many ways, won't be able carry on that emotional redemption into something tangible, but again there's a simplicity and honesty about that. Just because a story doesn't happily, doesn't mean it doesn't have something to offer, and that's true of all races. Some stories won't end well, and for filmmakers that have the guts to not sugar coat said stories deserve a little bit of credit.

In all honestly I think Mr. Reed meant to criticize the other best picture nominated film about an obese, illiterate African American: The Blind Side. For that film perfectly defines his idea of how white people are helpful, caring and philanthropic to the racial cause without questioning their role in it. Am I wrong? I don't mean to keep harping on the film, but for everything that feels real and acutely observed about Precious feels misguided and almost fantastical in The Blind Side. On serves as a gritty reminder of the hideousness that some people have to endure and the other serves as a tacky Hollywood by-product that seems about 20 outdated.

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