The Chronicle Review

Are We All Precious?

Lionsgate, Photofest

Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique star as daughter and mother in Precious.
December 13, 2009

Is Precious keeping it real or just keeping it sordid? Audiences are clearly moved by it, but moved to do what? To feel and think what?

Many viewers have hailed the recent release as Oscar-worthy because it's "raw" and "powerful." As Peter Travers of Rolling Stone writes, "Once Precious gets its hooks into you, no way is it letting go." Whether the Hollywood elite reacting to exclusive private screenings or Facebook users turning their status updates into a populist endorsement of the acclaimed but controversial Lee Daniels film, they have praised its courage to delve deeply into the problems of sexual and physical abuse and poverty, while shattering the silences surrounding HIV, offering an "authentic" coming-of-age story of a young black woman who will, in Maya Angelou's vernacular, "rise."

But I'll post a warning here beyond the MPAA rating system: Viewers of this film without a solid understanding of how racism works must be accompanied by a historian. That might curtail audiences' leaving the theater having interpreted fiction for fact and seeing the protagonist, Precious, as a composite of all the African-American female youths in America's inner cities.

From reviews and comments, I gather that white viewers, particularly, seem to be startled into some new cognizance by hyperbolic scenes like Precious's mother dropping the girl's infant on the floor or throwing a TV at Precious. They don't seem to be as moved by the subtle moments such as when Precious's teacher asks the class to write a fairytale so that the students, all of whom have their share of struggles, can begin the process of imagining another life and crafting an alternate reality. Critics and audiences home in, as proof of the film's potency, on the outrageous scenes of a mother chasing her daughter up a narrow staircase or a father menacingly unbuckling his pants.

The problem is that Precious tacitly justifies its ugliness as a path toward ultimately improving the lives of young black girls in American ghettos. The implicit rationale is that the grittier the film, the more sympathy and empathy it will garner among white and affluent American audiences. Daniels understands the mission of the film as bringing about change. In a recent interview, he said, "Precious must bring about change. Otherwise there is no hope for humanity. … How could you look at this movie and not change or think differently?"

But do films really work that way? Is a picture like Precious, which reveals such struggle and abuse, actually able to spark social progress? Or is it more likely to substantiate stereotypes? And when African-American filmmakers and actors create such a work, are they change agents or barkers beckoning us to a poverty-porn peep show? Their motives may be benevolent. But is their art?

That historian accompanying you to the theater would tell you, within a broader context, that black actors and story lines attract mainstream appeal and attention when they expose taboos. This, the artists hope, will lead to social change. Since the publication of slave narratives in the 19th century, abolitionists and black authors have believed that if they transgressed societal expectations in the name of a more noble political commitment, it justified discussing sex, which in the 19th century was considered taboo in American letters. For example, Harriet Jacobs, the former slave and author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, broke 19th-century conventions by deftly implying rape acts throughout her autobiography.

Readers in the 19th century and literary critics today justify her breaking social conventions of the day and raising the controversial subject of rape because, in so doing, Jacobs could expose the violent sexual abuse committed by slaveholders in the antebellum South. According to abolitionists, if Northern readers learned about these ghastly acts of violence, they would then join the abolitionist movement or, at the very least, financially and politically support the cause.

While Jacobs's text may have mobilized some white Northerners to join the abolitionist movement, or at least convinced white audiences of the horrors of slavery, we cannot and should not assume that a similar rationale will apply today to audiences of Precious. Unlike Jacobs's autobiography, which had a movement clearly attached to it, Precious floats in the stratosphere of amorphous political agendas, and has a better chance of anchoring itself onto a stereotype than mobilizing a movement. While well-intentioned people may exit the theater with a genuine and heartfelt concern for young women living in the inner cities, their hopes do not have a clearly defined campaign to funnel into. Instead, it is more likely that Precious will become, whether intentionally or not, a powerful illustration of life among the black, urban poor. And viewers who have not been widely exposed to the varieties of humankind and the vagaries of American existence will not limit their assumptions to "black, urban poor"; for them, to be black is necessarily to be urban and poor.

Within the context of African-American cultural production, Precious lacks the social critique and political message that defined previous landmark works. In the 1950s, for example, the publication of Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun crossed over to white audiences and became a blockbuster success that included many political subthemes and a damning critique of American culture. It exposed a poor black family's home, where, like Precious's, rats also resided, but Hansberry delved much deeper.

Raisin indicted the American dream by revealing its limitations for black people when white Americans prospered in a decade of consumption and relative consensus. Hansberry's drama informed white theatergoers that Eisenhower's plans to move family life into the newly designed suburbs were quite difficult, and, at times, downright impossible for black families—even for those who remained upright citizens and exemplified good American values. By challenging the American dream, Hansberry used the poverty and pain of the Younger family to deliver an important social message. We can't say the same for Precious.

Within the cramped quarters of the Youngers' apartment, Hansberry found the room to explore the complicated and intricate personalities of the various characters. Beneatha Younger emerged as an intelligent and ambitious young woman, who explored the then-taboo talk of black nationalism. Long before the white American public learned of Malcolm X or heard the famous slogan "black is beautiful," Beneatha paraded on stage in African-styled garb and brought to the Younger home an African man, who stood in direct contrast to the stars of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner almost a decade later.

Furthermore, Beneatha had ambition; she wanted to go to medical school. It is easy to overlook this fact today when reading the play after Americans have seen an African-American, female surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders. But this was truly an amazing idea given the period, Beneatha's class, and her race. In the recently released film An Education, a film set in a 1960s English suburb, the white high-school protagonist demands that her headmistress list the career options available to a young, intelligent female. The headmistress stares back at her blankly, offering as a complete list: teaching, or possibly something in the civil service. Hansberry, on the other hand, created an African-American character set in an earlier decade who could imagine and dream beyond such pitifully limited societal expectations.

The characters in Precious, in contrast to those Hansberry drew a half-century ago, are relatively uninterrogated, flat, unnuanced. If the writers and producers of Precious are so concerned with exploring the pains of poverty, then why not explain in a bit more detail why Precious's mother remains comatose in front of the TV watching The $10,000 Pyramid and becomes animated only when her welfare check is at risk. The mother character is truly demonic, not because she is poor, or black, or urban, but, by the sketchy logic of the film, because she is heartbroken. That's why she looks the other way when her husband abuses his daughter, and why she continually physically abuses her, too. But even if there's some glimmer of credible motivation there, it surely doesn't explain why she herself sexually abuses her daughter. That disturbing scene does nothing but taunt the viewer and potentially reify a stereotype about African-Americans' inhumanity.

The portrayal of other characters, too, seems to shock the audience and perpetrate stereotypes that black artists and writers have been battling for the last two centuries. The fair-skinned characters (who are the subtle beneficiaries of implied whiteness) tend to be portrayed as the heroes with very little exploration of their experience or reason for their concern. The dark-skinned characters, from boys on the street to Precious's mother (who are, by contrast, unredeemed and unredeemable by virtue of their undeniable African-ness) are marked as villains.

In contrast to Precious's dark-skinned mother, Precious's teacher appears angelic. In one of the potentially redeeming moments of the film, the viewer gains a bit more insight into the teacher's motivation when Precious enters her apartment. As the two characters talk in the teacher's living room, the camera picks up an image of a poster featuring Ntozake Shange's choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. As in a Henry James novel, the exterior environment begins to reveal the interior of the character. The teacher's deep commitment to her students' well-being is rooted in part to the fact that she is a feminist; a feminist who valorizes Shange—who in her art powerfully revealed what life is like for young girls in the hood.

Yet this momentary flicker of richer characterization is extinguished when another female character descends from the background stairs and enters the scene. Precious's voice begins to narrate, and she deduces that her teacher is a lesbian, which, given the film's other flat portrayals, only reifies yet another stereotype, one that the women's movement has been trying to debunk for decades: that all feminists are lesbians.

Oprah Winfrey, one of the producers of the film, has claimed that we are all Precious. Your accompanying historian, however, might remind you that the power of racism, integral to life in the United States, makes that universal impossible.

When a black character appears as destitute, victimized, and abused, less-astute white audiences have a tendency to view her or him as an accurate representation of black life. Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye, for example, is often read as a story, like Precious, about a young black girl who is the victim of child molestation, incest, and racism, but rarely recognized, as Morrison intended, as a novel about the universal struggles that all people face in confronting beauty standards. As most historians and literature professors will remind you, the challenge of teaching a novel like The Bluest Eye, or any work of African-American literature for that matter, is to steer nonblack students away from claiming that the characters in the novel are intended to represent the black experience, rather than highlight a universally recognized theme, like the alienation or suffering that both The Bluest Eye and Precious explore.

In Precious, do viewers tap into the universal truths that the film may promote? Or do they see the salacious scenes of sexual violence, or even the humorous vignette of an overweight black girl stealing fried chicken and clumsily running down the street, as confirming a secret and long-held fact? Referring to Precious as "raw" or "harrowing" sidesteps the human aspects of this story and instead capitalizes on the predominately white prurient fascination with seeing black bodies as tortured and in pain.

When white characters appear in film and literature as abused, victimized, and aberrant, audiences do not endorse the films with the same verve as they do when black characters are depicted that way. Take, for example, Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina. Like Precious, Allison's novel of a young girl abused by a father figure was turned into a film and included A-list Hollywood actors. However, the film never made it to the big screen but instead made its premiere on cable. Allison's character is understood as being exceptional in white America and not representative of white America.

Conversely, filmmakers and audiences alike want to see Precious as an illustration of reality. That has the slim potential to expose some sort of truth and to create change, but it runs the much greater risk of continuing to substantiate a stereotype. In recent weeks when talk of the Oscars has surfaced, critics have extolled Gabourey Sidibe's performance in the title role as brilliant. But the idea of Precious as reality creeps into profiles and interviews as journalists remark on how "articulate," "composed," and "well-spoken" Sidibe is. Roger Ebert writes: "You meet Sidibe, who is engaging, outgoing, and 10 years older than her character, and you're almost startled. She's not at all like Precious."

Why are they surprised? Why should she be like the character she plays? Why shouldn't she be articulate?

On some level, the commentators watching the film came to believe that they were watching a documentary and not a performance at all; that they were watching an episode out of Sidibe's life and not a scene from a movie. Is that the mark of a brilliant performance? Maybe. Is it evidence of some presuppositions about Precious's and Sidibe's lives? Almost certainly.

When white women from Angelina Jolie to Charlize Theron deliver awe-inspiring, Oscar-worthy performances of victimized, deranged, and scarred women, do commentators ever say how well-spoken the actresses are? Of course not, because, at the end of the day, they realize they are watching an actress at work. But when Sidibe plays the part, many viewers believe they are watching someone "real"; someone whom they came to know; someone whom they now understand.

That taking of fiction for fact can be the sign of great art. But it can also be what happens when you turn a story of abuse and poverty into something precious.

Jim Downs is currently a Gilder Lehrman Fellow at Yale University and an assistant professor of history and American studies at Connecticut College. He edited "Why We Write: The Politics and Practice of Writing for Social Change" (Routledge, 2005) and co-edited "Taking Back the Academy!: History of Activism, History as Activism" (Routledge, 2004).