Precious and The Representation of Blacks in the Media: Do we care too much about what others think?

8 years ago

The release of the movie Precious has gotten black folk atwitter. As my fellow Bloghers CE Nordette and Megan have written incredible and honest posts about the movie and Sapphire's book, what I wanted to focus on is what really interests me ( beside the book, which I loved but I'm still on the fence about seeing the movie, which hasn't hit Canada yet) which is the reaction from bloggers.

Part of me is glad to see so many black journalists commenting on the film and the preceding book. I wonder why some journalists have not - outside of being forced to by their bosses at whatever big mainstream publication they work for - really discuss the troubling depictions in the book. From Racialicious:

There are many things overlooked in critiques of Push/Precious, one of which is the frank discussion of incest.  As many readers here and at Jezebel pointed out, many of the reviews kind of waltz over the continued sexual abuse by both father and mother. (Something else that is never mentioned is Precious’ horror that her body reacts when she is being raped – something that her father uses as a justification that she “likes” it.)  And I wonder why this is being dismissed.  Would it have been okay to discuss the incest if the narrator was different, the situation was different?  Like this?

Why is the horrific abuse by both Precious's father AND mother glossed over in favor for a focus on the weight of the character and the actor, Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe? who mentions the color of her skin and her features instead of real-life problems that many people have faced?

I think it is because some people are embarrassed of depictions that show the dysfunctions within black populations. Dysfunctions are also present in other communities, but for us, when we see a character that embodies negative stereotypes about black women, stereotypes that are still prevalent in sour societies, we feel that this image on the big screen will enforce those thoughts, not help to erase them.  

We worry about what white people will think. And while I can understand that sentiment, in this case people are reacting by 'blaming the messenger.'

Now I understand why non-blacks are hesitant to be too critical, as they know that us uppity black folk will quickly pull the race card on them. And as New York Post writer Armond White writes that seeing the film in a theatre full of white folks made him cringe:

A scene such as the hippopotamus-like teenager climbing a K-2 incline of tenement stairs to present her newborn, incest-bred baby to her unhinged virago matriarch, might have been met howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem’s Magic Johnson theater. Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation, whereas too many white film habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority—and relief—it allows them to feel. Some people like being conned.

We, as human beings, are viewing this important, relevant story in three different ways. While I question White's motives, he has some valid points in the film. Here is the first one.

1. Director Lee Daniels is a pimp.

Daniels, like every other business person in the world, is clearly out to make a buck. In a perfect world, we would hope that someone who wants to handle the re-creation of Sapphire's book with some TLC. And from most accounts he stayed relatively close to the novel ( but after the savage butchering of Beloved, I am very cynical about adaptations). I commented on Nordette's post a couple of days ago about an interview I read in the New York Times about Daniels, and I said that it really rubbed me the wrong way. coupled with White's article, I am really having second doubts about his motivation:

"Gabby is comfortable in her body. She may be in a state of denial or on a higher plane than the rest of us, but either way, she breaks your heart in the movie.”

White's argument is that Daniels purposefully played into black stereotypes because that is what mainstream audiences feel comfortable with. They either want the 'feel-good' story where the downtrodden black is 'saved' by the whites (ala Sandra bullock's new move The Blindside)  or movies in which they feel shows the 'real pathology' of blacks. Was he saying that this novel should have been adapted? I don't know.

2. The use of light-skinned, more commercially viable actors playing roles in which the original character were, um, regular?

He casts light-skinned actors as kind (schoolteacher Paula Patton, social worker Mariah Carey, nurse Lenny Kravitz and an actual Down syndrome child as Precious’ first-born) and dark-skinned actors as terrors. Sidibe herself is presented as an animal-like stereotype—she’s so obese her face seems bloated into a permanent pout.This is not the breakthrough Todd Solondz achieved in Palindromes where plus-size black actress Sharon Wilkins artfully represented the immensity of an outcast’s misunderstood humanity. Instead, Sidibe’s fancy-dressed daydream looks laughable; poorly photographed, its primary effect is pathetic.

Don't get me wrong, I love me some Mariah Carey and Paula Patton. But the original character of Ms. Rain, was a dark-skinned black women with dreadlocks. Why did Daniels have to cast Patton, who is visibly so different than the original character? She is a biracial, light-skinned black woman whom is stereotypically more appeasing to white audiences than a dark-skinned actor. Daniels seems to be saying ' okay I need to make some money of this 'ish' with his casting choice - oh, and Carey. Anyone remember Glitter?

While many might not understand, to black communities it makes a huge difference. We ( unfortunately) need the validation - not that dark-skinned, natural-haired women are just as hot as Halle - but that we exist. Daniels should be congratulated for bringing this story - in whatever semblance it is in - to light. But still, brotha, give some chocolate sistas some love.

Now, the above critique of Sidibe by White, while cruel, is nothing in comparison to the comments to three posts up at at The Root. While yes, the writers(who wrote the posts) should be congratulated by not towing the line and being, umm, honest? But there seemed to be an underlying cruelty in the article about Sidibe's weight:

And what about the psychological issues? As well adjusted as Sidibe purports to be, there’s got to be an emotional disconnect between the mind and body. Finding comfort eating one’s way to morbid obesity is not healthy, nor is it self-affirming.

Here is an interesting comment from the same post:

As I watched this film, I couldn't help but feel Gabourey was exploited by the people behind this project. She is straight from central casting, the one that exists deep within black peoples consciousness, the sub-conscious we fight desperately to suppress; She's fat, very black, and ugly by our standards. If Gabourey didn't exist, Oprah would have had to invent or create her for this role.
The second observation that came to me, was, this is what black feminism is all about! The message is that all black women are victims, and that all black men are beasts ready for the prey.
The third observation is that Oprah has some deep & unresolved issues with black men. Oprah doesn't find black men worthy.

The Root has two other posts that declare that it's not Daniels who is a pimp, but Oprah and Tyler Perry and another that says that if anyone thinks that the movie is going to 'help' black female actors, think again. Stanley Crouch says that Hollywood just ain't ready:

There seems to be no appetite for the combination of toughness, intelligence and unpretentious empathy seen in the real-life Michelle Obama. (Especially when she could not hold back tears as she listened to Joe Biden speak of his dead wife at the Democratic Convention. Or as she was moved, voice quavering, by the depth of feeling shown her by those girls of every color in London.)

But that fascination with Mrs. Obama’s humanity doesn’t, and won’t, transfer to black actresses in Hollywood.

I agree.

But it was the comments from 'regular' folks that bothered me. I know that on the 'Net people can get away with being jerks, but really? This was beyond rational. I'll leave it to y'all to check it.

All of these posts made me think about the reasons behind the comments. I think that black folks are so afraid of what 'the general public' think of us, that they feel uncomfortable with public depictions of what happens to black people in real life. Precious is fiction, but according to what I have read via interviews with the author, the character was comprised of girls that Sapphire had met in real life.

Some of our black girls are being raped by their fathers.

Some of our mothers are sexually, emotionally and physically abusive.

Some of us live in the ghetto.

Some of us are homeless.

Some of us are gay and lesbian.

Some of us are illiterate.

Some of us are obese.

Now to be totally realistic, I know that the media and the people I interact with everyday seem to think that we are all alike. If one black stranger gets arrested for robbing a bank, we all feel that we have to take responsibility for a his / her actions.

From reading the comments on The Root, I understand why some are afraid that others will think - and more importantly, treat us like we are all Precious. But they are wrong and most importantly, you cannot live your life more concerned with other's perceptions over how you feel about yourself. Plus, unlike Precious, many of us do not have the strength, determination to change our thinking and be as optimistic as that character is.

And instead of being ashamed when a story, a difficult, harrowing story in which I believe (despite my concerns about Daniels) is a story that could potentially start some frank and honest discussions - not about Sidibe's weight or how dark she is or how attractive she is - but about what we are going to do about the real boys and girls who are facing these issues. In our communities. Everyday. Are we going to stop being bourgeoisie and do something about it?

It's easy to pontificate online ( like I do every week) but it's another thing to do something - to help to people in our lives that need our help. Are we willing to do it?




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