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.