On "Precious" | Crittenton Services, Inc.
I get it. I really do. There is certainly some justification in the backlash about the Oscar-nominated film "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" by
African Americans. The movie depicts an illiterate, obese black teenager who has two children by her father. NY Times journalist Ishmael Reed said he felt as if
he were under a two-hour psychological assault watching the film.*
He had echoed the critique of "Precious" as a two hour assault from an unnamed black radio broadcaster. This despite the fact that the movie was based upon a novel
by a black woman, was directed by a black man, Lee Daniels, and publically endorsed by prominent black celebrities Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. But maybe they
just didn't get it the way the journalist and the broadcaster did. Perhaps Reed, himself a respected African-American literary figure, knows something Oprah, Tyler
and I don't.
Who am I to question this critique? I'm white. What do I really know about the psychological torment that people of color endure throughout their lives with racial
profiling and hate and unfair depictions of them in the media?
Oh, wait. I live in West Virginia, where the entire state population is commonly maligned as toothless, obese, illiterate, incestuous hillbillies. In fact, while
calling anyone of another race by a derogatory name is a nearly unforgivable sin, people who live in Appalachia are fair game for any slur imaginable.
This is not to say that poor white people have suffered the same as black people. In America, white people were never enslaved for generations, or subjected to a
century of Jim Crow, or have had to endure the horrible injustices African Americans still face today. The point is this: The girl depicted in the film "Precious"
could have just as easily been a white girl from West Virginia. She could have been a Hispanic girl from East LA. She could have been Asian or Puerto Rican or any
number of other ethnic minorities - or no minority at all. To focus on her race is to miss the point of the film.
The crux of the argument seems to hold that "Precious" suggests that incest is widespread among black families. This is absurd. The fictional movie does not make
any such blanket assertions. The fact that incest and child abuse happens in families is certain - black, white - every color. Reasonable minds know that this is
not a uniquely black phenomenon, just as poverty, illiteracy and child abuse cross all racial lines.
Another main objection to the movie is that the heroes in "Precious" and other such films are always white people, coming to rescue the minority. One could make
this argument about "Avatar," but in "Precious," the only hero is the victim herself. Her teacher, her social worker, a male nurse, all of whom help her, are of
mixed racial and social backgrounds. But it is really the girl herself who is the heroine. There are no benevolent "slave masters."
Another point critics make is that Precious learns "redemption through learning the ways of white culture," but what Precious learns is literacy. The ability to
communicate is hardly the invention of white culture. And it is not exactly redemption anyway - she committed no sins for which she needed redemption. The striking
realism of the film leaves her without a job, with AIDS, and with two children fathered by her own father, one with Down syndrome. But she left her abusive mother
behind, she kept her children and was resolved to make a life of her own - however imperfect. Not exactly a Hollywood ending, but one that is much more realistic
than most. Precious was a victim, and while she had help, the real "redemption" was that she was able to grow and have a fuller life.
The salient point here is that we must see beyond race in understanding the message of "Precious." If she had been a white girl from the hills of West Virginia,
there would have been no backlash. There is no National Association for the Advancement of Hill People. There is no lobby to push for making it politically incorrect
to unfairly depict residents of Appalachia as a lower species. There are no outspoken journalists crying out with righteous indignation at the psychological assault
the mass media commits when it stereotypes everyone who lives between the Potomac and the Midwest as incestuous, inarticulate, uneducated, unhealthy, dirty, fat, and
I know this because I am fortunate enough to work with girls who are more like Precious than not. Few of them are black. None of them are urban. All of them are from
Appalachia. And their stories are just as horrifying as that of Precious. These are girls society would rather forget. They come from families just as dysfunctional
and horrible as the one in the film. And with a little help and nurturing from a core of dedicated professionals, they are receiving therapy, intervention, education
and hope for a better future. They have never been nurtured, but they are learning how to nurture - first themselves and then their children and other loved ones. The
important thing here is breaking the cycle - the legacy - of abuse, neglect, incest, rape, poverty and despair which cross racial lines, geographic borders and even
economic strictures. And these girls I know - they are heroines. They "get it" better than the highly-educated New York Times columnists who find it useful to take an
important message and skew it to meet their agenda. These real life "Precious" girls - they're my heroines.
* (Reed, I. . Fade to White, N.Y. Times Opinion page, 4 February, 2010. Electronic reference: A, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/05/opinion/05reed.html)