Life After Precious

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Embracing Precious: The nuances and truths in the individual and collective stories we tell


Now that some of the hysteria over Precious has died down and we’ve moved on to the good and bad of being a Black Princess with a frog for a Prince or blue aliens. We can take a moment to sit back and look at what Precious says about us as a community. Especially, now that the hype of the awards season is over and Precious has won at least one award from almost every award show from the NAACP Image Awards to The Oscars.

As we look at Precious as a social commentary about society and our community as a whole, a number of issues have come up. In the month or so since it opened to a wide audience last year, there have been several articles dissecting, criticizing and praising the Lee Daniels’ film. For the folks who were lured by the pre-release buzz and for those who just recently saw it, many are still reacting to the gritty and un-apologizing story of an overweight and illiterate Black teenage girl. And despite all that you have heard or read about the film, nothing can really prepare you for what you saw. It’s not a common story but it’s also not unheard of. Some, in the Black community were already familiar with this story, have witnessed it ourselves, know someone like Precious or saw ourselves in her. Its a story that can be too close to home and is a bitter reminder of all that can be self-loathing, ugly, sad and disheartening about our community. Teresa Wilts of, says “No amount of hype can prepare you for the visceral shock that you get from watching this film. It’s got a lot of a lot. A lot of urban pathology, a lot of sadness and grief and a whole lot of rage and venom and jaw dropping cruelty.” But, unlike other ghettoized stories about the black community dealing with violence, many related to this film due to the universal story of abuse. A friend who happened to be a slightly older and middle class white woman empathized with the main characters because of her own experience of abuse. People of different races have also related similar feelings about the film in a manner different than many of us are used to. We are more familiar with the usually feel good movie about downtrodden people of color that makes white folks feel sympathetic, yet superior. Even the most recent Clint Eastwood film, Invictus, seems to have fallen guilty to that premise. That without Matt Damon’s character’s charisma and athletic ability, South Africa would have collapsed despite the leadership and dedication of its most celebrated and respected President, Nelson Mandela.

So, with all the commercial and critical success of this film, what’s the problem with Precious ??? Well, there are a few issues. Since there are a limited amount of films by and about Black and people of color, there is a need to see more of the diversity and depth of the African American experience. “Serious African American cinema scarcely exists. It arrives in fits and sputters, in the occasional legends (Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks), outliers (Charles Burnett, Julie Dash) or mavericks (Spike Lee). But demanding cinema based around the black experience are largely absent from American screens, displaced by gangstas, guns and masquerading comedians in drag or fat suits (Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy),” as noted by Anthony Kaufman of in the article, What the Success of “Precious” means for Black Indie Cinema. When images rarely reflect who you are, filmmakers and audiences of color become sensitive about any and every story told about their experience. The same has happened with Precious, a grim and sometimes gross dramatized depiction of poverty in Black America. And although, it has a more uplifting ending than the book, Push, by author and poet, Sapphire, its still an almost hopeless story. As film critic Armond White stated in the New York Press’ article Pride and Precious, “The hype for Precious indicates a culture-wide willingness to accept particular ethnic stereotypes as a way of maintaining status quo film values.”

So, how do we tell stories about poor people and people of color and is it necessary to always exploit Black pain for commercial gain. Stories that focus on poverty, ugliness and abuse have become gateway subjects to award shows. If you want to win an Oscar, then films like Monster’s Ball, Monster and Slumdog Millionaire have the right elements to guarantee you a golden statue. And with downtrodden poor and undereducated folks being the flavor of the decade, Precious has all the right elements to be a winner. Now its not to say, that the stories of poor and undereducated folks don’t have value and shouldn’t to be told, but is it possible to do so without victimizing the victims. Mississippi Damned is a great example of a film that depicts the challenges of growing up poor with little opportunities to get out of a small town. Written and directed by Tina Mabry, a Black woman filmmaker, who grew up in a small black rural town similar to community she dramatizes in the film. Her film, based on a true story, is about three poor Black kids in rural Mississippi who reap the consequences of their family’s cycle of abuse, addiction, and violence. Mississippi Damned pulls you into the story, you are not a spectator in the drama of someone’s else life. Which brings into question in how stories are told. As a filmmaker, a woman and an African American, I have great issue with who gets to tell my/our story. Men get to tell the stories of women, ie. Precious and white folks are afforded the opportunity to tell the stories of Black and Brown people. (If you don’t believe me, check to see any documentary film about a person or community of color that has a won an award or received major funding in the last 10 yrs, and I can assure you it was done by a non-person of color). Which, of course, wouldn’t be so bad if this weren’t the norm.

In addition, to who tells these stories, I’m also concerned about the images of Black women and women of color in these stories. There have been recent periods where the images of black women were of large, boisterous, buffoon like characters, who were more than often played by men. Now, the images reflect poor and angry women unable to care for themselves or their families. Very rarely do you see the diverse characterization of women played by actresses like Cicely Tyson in Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman or Dianne Carroll in Claudine or more recently Nia Long in Love Jones and Soul Food, Sanana Lathan in Love and Basketball and Brown Sugar or anything that Regina King has been in. And these are only a few of the many incredible black actresses who rarely get the opportunity to portray dynamic and well-rounded women. Of course, this not to say that any of the actors in Precious gave inadequate performances, its quite the opposite. Mo’Nique has deserved every award she has received. If her performance wasn’t as moving and challenging as it was, there wouldn’t be as much discussion about her disturbing portrayal of Mary. And obviously, Gabourey Sidibe, Paula Patton and Mariah Carey were each excellent in portraying the depth and uniqueness of their character. Each of those characters needed to have their stories told. Most importantly, Precious needed to be seen and the issues around our poor education system, illiteracy in this country, all forms of abuse and most importantly women and HIV in the black community, needed to be brought to light. This was a rich but difficult and raw film that explored the pain and ugliness of being poor and black. As noted by Seeing’s film critic, Esther Iverem, “There are some rich moments in “Precious,” especially several scenes with Precious at a new high school for troubled girls and in interviews with her social worker, played with perfect Noo Yawk attitude by Mariah Carey.” But will the story of Precious and their portrayal of black women help to elevate the future of Black film or should it even be expected to do so. Well, only time will tell.

So far, Precious has held the highest number of Academy Award nominations for a Black film in history and its DVD sales have seen record numbers. As of now, even in its glow of success, folks are still debating the value of this film. Some writers see it as damaging as the Birth of a Nation, while others feel it paints a vivid portrait of those ignored by society. Whichever way you view the film, it certainly has encouraged one of the most interesting and yet challenging debates about race, film and culture in recent memory. Hopefully, the dialogue will continue while the opportunities for filmmakers, writers and actors of color will expand and evolve in the wake of its success.


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