Posted by: Patrice Fitzgerald | February 7, 2010

I vote for Precious

A lot of people are talking about “Precious” and whether the reactions are falling along racial lines.  Ishmael Reed, in the New York Times, says that, “Among black men and women, there is widespread revulsion and anger over the Oscar-nominated film about an illiterate, obese black teenager who has two children by her father.”

I can’t say how black people feel.  But I can tell you how one white woman feels.

I finally saw the film, just this weekend. I had been putting it off because I thought it would be pretty hard to take — and it was, but it was also powerful and worthwhile. I went out and bought the book and finished it today. The book is even more specific about the abuse than the movie, but the main character’s amazing growth in understanding, because we are privy to her thoughts, is even more compelling.

Does it portray this particular black family as monstrous?  Indeed it does.  Even Director Lee Daniels said, before he showed the film in Cannes, that he was in part embarrassed to have a foreign white crowd see black folks this way.

Ironically, in the book, the character Precious reads The Color Purple and identifies with the protagonist, and learns that there are people who didn’t think it should be made into a film because it paints black men in a bad light. The character Precious, who is just learning to write, says, “I love The Color Purple. That book give me so much strength. Ms Rain say a group of black men wanted to stop movie from the book. Say unfair picture of [black] men. She ax me what do I think. Unfair picture? Unfortunately it a picture I know, except of course Farakkhan who is real man.”

I did feel that Sapphire (the author of the book PUSH on which Precious was based) who was both a social worker and a teacher for a number of years, must have combed her case files to pile all the dysfunction she could find on this one young lady’s family. But you know… that’s what we do in books. We find the extreme, the dramatic, the most moving story. And open it up to the world.

Certainly Charles Dickens portrayed most of his characters as the most unfortunate of wretches, and often the victims of people who should have protected them.  And 16-year-old Precious is Dickensian in the extreme.

Ishmael Reed is right that when awful things are done by white characters in film, we don’t impute that to all whites — but that’s because white is the dominant culture. We look at such a movie and say, yeah, some people are slimy. We don’t say all white people are slimy.  It will be interesting to see the reactions to a film about Stieg Larsson’s character Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” — another woman who is subject to unconscionable abuse — a white woman.

And I don’t think most Caucasions will watch “Precious” and conclude that there is a lot of abuse amongst African-Americans — except to the extent that such horrendous abuse would probably be noticed and attended to if Precious weren’t one of the most marginalized of children.

That’s the point I think the film is trying to make. Sometimes children are treated horribly. In this case, no one looked hard enough to discover what was going on and why she was in such dire straits.

The white women in this film, the social worker (Ms. Weiss, who was played by Mariah Carey but is of indeterminate race, a point Precious makes) and one of her teachers, are mostly well-meaning clueless types who sometimes make things worse. I don’t think they’re lauded as the saviors in the least.

I think Mr. Reed took racial umbrage too far in his attempt to make points. But yeah — maybe we need to make the same film with terrible white parents doing shocking things to their white daughter. Only the difference is that probably someone would rescue her. As they should have rescued Precious.

But finally she rescued herself.

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