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Nadra Kareem Nittle

What "Precious" Means for Race Relations

By November 8, 2009

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The film "Precious" premiered in select cities Nov. 6, and reviews are pouring in about the movie with a Harlem teen whose life transforms through education. To say that the circumstances of Precious Jones' life are bleak would be an understatement. Precious is illiterate, living with HIV and has been victimized by her parents in numerous ways, including sexually. Her father has twice impregnated her, and one child she's borne by him suffers from Down syndrome.

"Precious" tackles an array of issues. Because the protagonist is black, however, both the media and the public have raised questions about its effect on race relations. I've summed up two major questions about the film below:

Why do white audiences eat up black films and novels that depict dysfunction, poverty and abuse?

Why are the villains in "Precious" dark-skinned and the heroes light-skinned?

"Precious" is based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Both the film and the book have been compared to Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye in that they, too, garnered praise from white critics and featured emotional and sexual abuse of black youth by family members. The fact that these works feature abuse isn't in and of itself a problem. The problem is how the mainstream receives these works. I have no problem if viewers and critics regard "Precious" et al. as representations of particular black families. On the other hand, I do object to viewers and critics who regard a film like "Precious" as the only authentic black experience and a television program such as "The Cosby Show" as inauthentic. The fact is both of these slices of black life are authentic.

I do understand, though, why some members of the black community have criticized "Precious." Positive images of blacks in the media remain few and far between. In comedies, blacks are portrayed as buffoonish, cartoonish and uncouth. Films such as "Norbit," "Doctor Dolittle" and "Big Momma's House," not to mention any Tyler Perry flick, mock black womanhood. And on the dramatic end, we've had stories of gang warfare, virulent racism and abusive or absentee parents.

There's no doubt in my mind that media portrayals of people of color can lead to racial stereotyping. I'm reminded of a former classmate from a Mexican-American family from East L.A. Her roommate freshman year was a Midwesterner who, upon seeing the gang film "Mi Vida Loca," said that she didn't realize my classmate had lived such a hard life. My friend laughed and told her that she had little in common with the "Mi Vida Loca" characters.

In the case of "Precious," critics not only fear that the film will lead to racial stereotyping but that it constitutes "poverty porn." This refers to films that cater to privileged moviegoers who get off on taking in images of poor people in desperate situations. After watching such cinema, the privileged feel like better people just for having seen the film but do nothing to make change in the world they've witnessed on screen.

In a New York Times Magazine interview, director Lee Daniels confessed that he worried about screening "Precious" for a European audience.

"To be honest, I was embarrassed to show this movie at Cannes," he said. "I didn't want to exploit black people. And I wasn't sure I wanted white French people to see our world."

He added, however, that because the world now has a black role model in Barack Obama, a story such as "Precious" can be shared without fear of racial backlash. I don't agree with this, considering that Obama is likely viewed by those in the U.S. and outside of it as the exception rather than the rule as far as African Americans go.

I was also eager to hear Daniels discuss how he feels about exposing audiences to the thread of "colorism" that runs through "Precious." While the evil characters in the film are dark-skinned, the benevolent characters are played by actors so light-skinned they're not easily identifiable as black.

"I'm prejudiced against people who are darker than me," Daniels remarked in New York Times Magazine. "When I was young, I went to a church where the lighter-skinned you were, the closer you sat to the altar. Anybody that's heavy like Precious -- I thought they were dirty and not very smart. Making this movie changed my heart. I'll never look at a fat girl walking down the street the same way again."

I'm glad that Lee's prejudice dissipated during the course of making "Precious," but that doesn't change the harmful message sent by the colorism in his film. In the book "Precious" is based on, a dark-skinned teacher with natural hair changes Precious' perceptions of dark skin from negative to positive. This powerful transformation is lacking in the film because a fair-skinned actress was cast to play Precious' teacher. If Daniels really did become less prejudiced about size and color while making "Precious," hopefully his next project will feature dark-skinned blacks of strong character rather than violent, exploitative brutes with dark skin.


November 9, 2009 at 5:52 pm
(1) Carolyn Rogers says:

Poverty is pernicious and the cycle is tough to break. Precious offers teachers and educators the opportunity to teach how discrimination against dark-skinned people leads to poverty which leads to violence. Rather than focus on the brutality of the dark-skinned people around her, focus on Precious. SHe faces discrimination not just because she is dark-skinned but over-weight as well. Her triumph can be touted as a role-model for young female victims of poverty and abuse across cultures if we could only start the conversations. I would like to see the NAACP or ACORN or some organization develop a teaching module based on Precious. I would also like to see schools be able to offer curriculums that address these civic issues – not just race for the best test scores that “No Child Left Behind” has become.

November 9, 2009 at 5:55 pm
(2) gregory smith says:

I think you are absolutly correct…why do white people love these kinds of films about blacks in America…I think the movie…”The Blind Side”…is another example. There are so many movie about blacks with white heroes…sure this true, but it has been my experience that most of the heroes for down and out blacks are middle class blacks. I guess that does not sale.

November 9, 2009 at 6:11 pm
(3) Mosaic Minister says:

I saw the movie on yesterday and I was dissapointed. The powerful story as written by Saphire was dilluted to a pale comparison of itself as depicted on screen. The true journey and development of the characters was not shown. Although I feel that Monique gave a strong performance, the desparate and depraved sexual abuse that she inflicted on Precious was only implied and the constant abuse by the father was only mentioned in passing. If your readers really want to understand this saga. READ THE BOOK !!

November 9, 2009 at 11:33 pm
(4) Ty dePass says:

i agree w/ the basic thrust of this post, and suggest that readers also check out Juell Stewart’s review of this flick for Colorlines Magazine (http://colorlines.com/article.php?ID=632).
Precious is merely the latest example of a new literary genre, ghetto-realist fiction, gaining popularity among too many people of color who say they wouldn’t otherwise be readings books. yet, it betrays the same time-worn and narrowly sensationalist, overly melodramatic and formulaic approach found in previous efforts of cultural niche-marketing targeting Blacks and Latinos: back in the 70s, Hollywood was “keeping it real” w/a spate of films about pimps, whores, and drug dealers that were intended for urban (read “ghetto”) audiences. popularly termed “blaxploitation,” these films glorified (and normalized) the notion that violence, mysogeny, and widespread criminal behavior were endemic to our communities. likewise, in the 80s, movies like Scarface and Carlitto’s Way added Latinos to this toxic mix. and sadly, in the 90s, “gangsta” and “booty-call” displaced the sharply political themes introduced in early rap music–and, notably, once stripped of its socially-relevant content, rap music spawned a generation of faux-outlaws, as CD sales spiked among White suburban youth also looking for a taste of “real” ghetto life. the sad fact is, far from “keeping it real,” these cultural forms charicature the lives and challenges of Black an Latino youth.
the problem here is that the only experience most Whites have w/ people of color is through cultural media (tv, films, music) bringing minstrelsy into the 21 century.

November 10, 2009 at 12:10 am
(5) Rachelsun says:

I am so tired of this colorism. Why do you think blacks labeled as light-skin have such a charmed life? the truth is the larger white society hardly notices the difference. If they discriminate they discriminate against light skinned blacks too unless they are so light people think they are white or hispanic. But believe me as soon as they know you are black the attitude changes no matter how light you are.

November 10, 2009 at 3:28 am
(6) Nadra says:

Rachelsun, I don’t think light-skinned blacks have a charmed life nor did I say that in my post. Also, I agree with you that whites don’t distinguish between the skin colors of blacks the way blacks do. My point was just that it was problematic that a director who’s admitted to being prejudiced against dark-skinned blacks portrayed them as monstrous in his film. This is a real problem, especially since the book his film is based on offered a different view.
Lastly, I want to thank everyone for posting some of the most interesting commentary I’ve seen on the Race Relations blog so far!

November 10, 2009 at 11:17 am
(7) Kamaria says:

Nadra, it’s Kamaria, you know how light skinned I am. I haven’t seen it yet, but in the trailers I was thinking the same thing. But what I also think is , when can we enjoy a film without looking at ourselves as the other? Why are we constantly obsessed with hiding our masking stories we create if they’re not benevelont images? I went through this shedding of a double identity at North Shore. Of being fearful of how were being portrayed. Although I agree with your sentiments I think all artistic exploits deserve to be seen. And if we want more of a broad spectrum, then we need to fund and push those projects forward. Not critique Tyler Perry who is simply sharing his voice and changing the face of Black film. Taking a deeper look at life as he knows it and sharing it. I’m proud of Perrys success and love his movies, stereotypes and all. Why? Because I gain from it. I can’t worry whether white people will have a stereotype because I know they already do. If they choose to base their conceptions of blacks off of this one movie, that’s their ignorance and they need to educate themselves.

November 10, 2009 at 2:09 pm
(8) Nadra says:

Kamaria, thanks for commenting! I remember seeing Chris Rock on “Oprah” to promote his film “Good Hair”, and he said to a woman in the audience concerned about revealing black people’s hair secrets to whites that “Blacks worry too much about what white people think.” I think that’s the point you’re making too, and it is a valid one. Black artists would be limited in their expression if they focused on what mainstream audiences think of their work. That said, I don’t think “Precious” should not have been made or anything. I just find it curious that mainstream audiences seem to love movies that portray extreme black dysfunction. As for Tyler Perry, I meant that he mocks black womanhood when he dresses in drag as big, boisterous Medea. I saw a “60 Minutes” interview with Perry, and he visited his New Orleans neighborhood. He pointed out women he said inspired his filmmaking, but these women shared little in common with Medea in physical appearance and even in personality. Medea seems a distorted exaggeration of black women to me. But that’s just my opinion.
Hopefully, I’ve spelled my thoughts out a little bit more. I hope you are well! And thanks again for sharing.

November 10, 2009 at 11:00 pm
(9) Kerry B says:

I love this type of intelligent communication on the subject of how Black people are portrayed in cinema. It’s very insightful. Thank you Nadra for putting it out there.

I thought the movie “Precious” was pretty good. The movie had that stripped-down, raw, impoverished feel to it. It was well acted and it’ll probably win a few awards.

That same story could’ve been told in the slums of India, Bangkok, Russia, or the backwoods of Virginia. But there did seem to be a little color issue present in this one.

Honestly though, while I was sitting in the theater, I noticed that all of the positive characters had lighter skin. I am not one to focus on that type of thing, but it was noticeable. Even the person who held Precious’ hand at the museum was not a dark-skinned character.
When I read that the director had issues with darker-skinned Black people, that sort of provided the answer to the whole thing. If he claimed that he learned to conquer his color issue DURING the filming of the movie, that proves that he cast the movie based on his prejudices.

As we all know, you can never pigeonhole Black people into a certain type. There is and always will be room in the industry for Tyler Perry, Spike Lee and any other filmmaker with a vision. We cannot and should not stifle creativity because we have to “represent” or put on our best face because “company” is watching. Filmmakers should be real, be free, be open and make whatever the moves them. It’s up to the moviegoers whether or not these visions are worthy of our attention.

November 11, 2009 at 1:59 pm
(10) Khadijat says:

I really must say, that all the comments on this thread were very thought provoking. I have always had mixed feelings about this film, from the first time I saw the trailor. However I am happy to say the comments on this thread have allowed me to make a more conscience decesion on wherther or not I will allow myself and my daughther for that matter to watch this film. Thanks for the post, sis.

November 11, 2009 at 4:06 pm
(11) Kayonne says:

Thank you so much for writing this article! Upon first reading Precious I was struck by how relatable Precious’ self-hating was. Growing up as a dark-skinned girl I knew that others placed me at the bottom of our black social hierarchy. Precious’ relationship with her teacher Blue was precisely as you said- it was meant to be transformative for Precious and help her reflect upon her own power as a dark-skinned woman in spite of her experiences. The colorism alone takes away what I consider to be one of the most important aspects of the book and something young dark-skinned girls still really need to see more of. Thanks again for addressing these issues with intelligence and a keen eye.

November 11, 2009 at 9:28 pm
(12) Jeremy says:

The movie Precious is riduculous people are seeing it because of what Oprah says about it. If we all did what Oprah told us there would be no crime or struggling with day to day issues. Come on people stop living in the surreal world there will never be a world like that. Muslims will hate America and there will always be racism no matter what race it is. As for Gregory Smith and his comment the movie The Blindside is based on a true story in which a white family took in a young black man so trying to make whites look like heroes is untrue in this statement it is fact.

November 13, 2009 at 10:38 am
(13) Kim says:

Gregory Smith your comment about the movie “Blind Side” being an example is not applicable. The movie is based on the true life story of Michael Oher. His parents Sean and Leigh Anne Oher are not white heroes saving a black person, but parents who love their son. As proud parents they were there earlier this year when their son became a first round 2009 NFL Draft pick for the Baltimore Ravens.

November 13, 2009 at 10:48 am
(14) Kim says:

Correction above: Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy are the names of Michael Oher’s parents. My apologies.

November 13, 2009 at 1:48 pm
(15) Shipe says:

The hatred I still experience daily from dark-skinned and light-skinned, wealthy, and poorer Blacks is not something anyone would believe unless you were there. I also see conflict between younger and older Blacks.
What about Spike Lee using Denzel Washington to play Malcolm X? Whoever makes a movie, please follow the book or script.

November 14, 2009 at 7:07 am
(16) Da vid Parkin says:

Real life stories feature white families abusing family members but we do not assume all white families behave in the same way. Patronising to suggest that we make such assumptions about black families.

November 23, 2009 at 8:35 pm
(17) movie goer says:

“Precious” is a story of poverty, as much as race. The legacy of slavery has resulted in the perpetuation of collective trauma for African Americans. Carrying the psychological burden of slavery through generations has made it hard to move out of poverty.

Americans try to ignore this. It’s shameful. After Katrina, when Americans saw extreme black poverty on their t.v. screens, they were in shock.

I think Americans of all colors respond to a “feel-good” story like this movie, because of its fairytale quality. “Precious” grows enormously in self-esteem and confidence. She is “saved” in the course of the movie. It’s much as Sapphire, the author of the book “Push”, must have envisioned saving young black women when she was a teacher in NYC public schools.

Does it matter? Stories always matter. They are how we claim ourselves.

November 24, 2009 at 3:38 am
(18) the helper says:

“I agree with you that whites don’t distinguish between the skin colors of blacks the way blacks do.”

You mean Black Americans. Black people in or from other countries aren’t as obsessed with light-skinned this, dark-skinned that as Black Americans are.

“Real life stories feature white families abusing family members but we do not assume all white families behave in the same way.”

True…but that’s because there are also movies showing White people in a very different light. Usually even within the same movie/show, you’ll see good White people along with the depraved ones. With Black people, however, you see just one image, so it becomes a caricature that reinforces stereotypes. Think about it.

November 29, 2009 at 11:50 am
(19) vitomia says:

I keep reading about how all the negative characters in the film “Precious” are dark-skinned blacks. As I recall the mother, Mary is the most hateful, abusive, violent character in the movie and she is far more light-skinned than dark. However I do agree that the teacher would have been more compelling if portryayed by a dark-skinned actress such as CCH Pounder. She has a more powerful presence on screen and commands every scene. Also Pounder being as dark-skinned as Precious would have further instilled in her a sense of empowerment. That a woman as dark as she was could be just as strong, powerful and successful as her lighter-skinned counterparts. As a European I can say this film would not have the same social-economic implications as it does here in the states.

January 14, 2010 at 8:13 am
(20) Jai says:

I’m on the fence with this movie. I understand that there was a story to be told… but it was extremely too harsh for me.I am a Black women and I know the life – but I could not relate to not one scene of that movie (NOT ONE)!I didn’t understand why the system didn’t take her away from the home. Why after the first born child was the father not arrested? Why did the maternal grandmother not do anything? Why did she stay and continue doing it, even after she was old enough to know that it was very wrong? Im sorry but it was just a bit much for me… Mayeb I need to read the book to get the story.

January 17, 2010 at 10:41 pm
(21) chad says:

I would like to respond to your posting by saying that you are stereotyping white people on viewing this film, however the producer was black. Second off I am a white male and I went to see the movie because of the actors. I am not at all racist as a matter of fact my partner is from a different ethnic. We are in 2010 this black and white stuff NEEDS TO STOP!!!! We are americans and thats it. We all suffer in everyday life whether we are white , black, mexican, indian, etc. If you want something to complain about ,,, complain on the issue of you being able to get married. I have been with the same person for 5 years and I cannot legally marry the person I love. To me thats an issue. But please the next time you are writting a blog dont discriminate against the white people when you dont know each and every one of us. We are all different.

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