Pride & Precious
You can thank media titans Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry for much of the hype surrounding Lee Daniels’ film Precious. ARMOND WHITE calls it the ‘Con Job of the Year.’
By Armond White
SHAME ON TYLER PERRY and Oprah Winfrey for signing on as air-quote executive producers of Precious. After this post-hip-hop freak show wowed Sundance last January, it now slouches toward Oscar ratification thanks to its powerful friends.Winfrey and Perry had no hand in the actual production of Precious, yet the movie must have touched some sore spot in their demagogue psyches. They’ve piggybacked their reps as black success stories hoping to camouflage Precious’ con job—even though it’s more scandalous than their own upliftment trade. Perry and Winfrey naively treat Precious’ exhibition of ghetto tragedy and female disempowerment as if it were raw truth. It helps contrast and highlight their achievements as black American paradigms—self-respect be damned.
Let’s scrutinize their endorsement: Precious isn’t simply a strivers’ message movie; Perry and Winfrey recognize its propaganda value. The story of an overweight black teenage girl who is repeatedly raped and impregnated by her father, molested and beaten by her mother comes from a 1990s identity-politics novel by a poet named Sapphire. It piles on self pity and recrimination consistent with the air-quotes’ own oft-recounted backstories. Promoting this movie isn’t just a way for Perry and Winfrey to aggrandize themselves, it helps convert their private agendas into heavily hyped social preoccupation.
But Perry and Winfrey aren’t all that keep Precious from sinking into the ghetto of oblivion like such dull, bourgie, black-themed movies as The Great Debaters or The Pursuit of Happyness. That’s because the film’s writer-director Lee Daniels works the salacious side of the black strivers’ street. Daniels knows how to turn a racist trick. As producer of Monster’s Ball, Daniels symbolized Halle Berry’s ravishment as integration; Kevin Bacon titillated pedophilia in Daniels’ The Woodsman and Daniels’ directorial debut, Shadowboxing, hinted at interracial incest between stepmother and son Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Winfrey, Perry and Daniels make an unholy triumvirate.They come together at some intersection of race exploitation and opportunism. These two media titans—plus one shrewd pathology pimp—use Precious to rework Booker T. Washington’s early 20th-century manifesto Up From Slavery into extreme drama for the new millennium: Up From Incest, Child Abuse,Teenage Pregnancy, Poverty and AIDS. Regardless of its narrative details about class and gender, Precious is an orgy of prurience. All the terrible, depressing (not uplifting) things that happen to 16year-old Precious recall that memorable All About Eve line, “Everything but the bloodhounds nipping at her rear-end.”
It starts with the opening scene of Precious’ Cinderella fantasy. Tarted up in a boa and gown, walking a red carpet light years away from her tenement reality, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) sighs, “I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with nice hair.” Her ideal smacks of selfhatred—the colorism issue that Daniels exacerbates without exploring. 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.
Daniels employs the same questionable pathos as the family banquet scene at the start of Denzel Washington’s also condescending Antwone Fisher. This cheap ploy of tortured daydreaming uses black American deprivation for sentimentality. It sells materialist fantasy as a universal motivation—no wonder Perry and Winfrey like it. Precious embodies an unenlightening canard.That fantasy opening—depicting the girl’s Obama-like ascension—tantalizes thoughts of advancement and triumph. It ought to be satirical to undercut the norms she aspires to just as Palindromes’ misfit teens subverted MTV’s ideas of youth.
Perry and Winfrey may think Precious is serious, but Daniels is hoisting his freak flag. He gets off on degradation. Flashbacks to Precious’ rape contain a curious montage of grease, sweat, bacon and Vaseline. Later, he intercuts a shot of pig’s feet cooking on a stove with Precious being humped while her mother watches from a corner. Another misjudged scene recreates De Sica’s B&W Two Women—a half-camp trashing of motherhood that compounds the problem of cultural alienation. So does the film’s Ebonics credit sequence and the scene of Precious rotating amidst a bombardment of success icons—Martina Arroyo, MLK, Shirley Chisholm—to which she either relates or is ignorant.This incoherence should not pass for sociology.
Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.
The hype for Precious indicates a culture-wide willingness to accept particular ethnic stereotypes as a way of maintaining status quo film values. Excellent recent films with black themes—Next Day Air, Cadillac Records, Meet Dave, Norbit, Little Man, Akeelah and the Bee, First Sunday, The Ladykillers, Marci X, Palindromes, Mr. 3000, even back to the great Beloved (also produced by Oprah)—have been ignored by the mainstream media and serious film culture while this carnival of black degradation gets celebrated. It’s a strange combination of liberal guilt and condescension.
Birth of a Nation glorified the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a panicky subculture’s solution to social change. Precious hyperbolizes the class misery of our nation’s left-behinds—not the post- Rapture reprobates of Christianity’s last-days theories, but the Obama-era unreachables—including Precious’ Benetton-esque assortment of remedial school classmates. One explanation is that Precious permits a cultural version of that 1960s political controversy “benign neglect”—its agreed-upon selection of the most pathetic racial images and social catastrophes helps to normalize the circumstances of poverty and abandon that will never change or be resolved.You can think: Precious is just how those people are (although Cops and the Jerry Springer and Maury Povich shows offer enough evidence that white folks live low, too).
Precious’ plot is so outrageous (although the New York Times Magazine touts it as “The Audacity of Precious,” a telling link to Obama’s memoir The Audacity of Hope) that its acclaim suggests an aftershock of all that Hurricane Katrina weeping and lamentation about America’s Others. This movie finally puts the deprivations of Katrina on the big screen—not as smug, political fingerpointing, nor the inconsequential way superliberals Brad Pitt and David Fincher shoehorned Katrina into Benjamin Button, but as sheer melodramatic terror. (Poor Precious endures the most brutal home life since Lillian Gish in the 1918 Broken Blossoms.)
Precious raises ghosts of ethnic fear and exoticism just like Birth of a Nation. Precious and her mother (Mo’Nique) share a Harlem hovel so stereotypical it could be a Klansman’s fantasy. It also suggests an outsider’s romantic view of the political wretchedness and despair associated with the blues. Critics willingly infer there’s black life essence in Precious’ anti-life tale. And the same high-dudgeon tsk-tsking of Hurricane Katrina commentators is also apparent in the movie’s praise. Pundits who bemoan the awful conditions that have not improved for America’s unfortunate are reminded that they are still on top.
This misreading of blues sensibility probably has something to do with the disconnect caused by hip-hop, where thuggishness and criminality romanticize black ghetto life. Director Daniels’ rotgut images of aggressive cruelty and low-life illiteracy aren’t far from gangster rap clichés.The spectacle warps how people perceive black American life— perhaps even replacing their instincts for compassion with fear and loathing.
Media hype helps pass this disdain down to the masses. Precious is meant to be enjoyed as a Lady Bountiful charity event. And look: Oprah,TV’s Lady Bountiful, joins the bandwagon. It continues her abusefetish and self-help nostrums (though the scene where Precious carries her baby past a “Spay and Neuter Your Pets” sign is sick).
Problem is, Perry,Winfrey and Daniels’ pityparty bait-and-switches our social priorities.
Personal pathology gets changed into a melodrama of celebrity-endorsed self-pity. The con artists behind Precious seize this Obama moment in which racial anxiety can be used to signify anything anybody can stretch it to mean. And Daniels needs this humorless condescension (Hollywood’s version of benign neglect) to obscure his lurid purposes.
Sadly, Mike Leigh’s emotionally exact and socially perceptive films (Secrets and Lies, All or Nothing, Happy Go Lucky) that answer contemporary miserablism with genuine social and spiritual insight have not penetrated Daniels,Winfrey, Perry’s consciousness—nor of the Oscarheads now championing Precious. They’ve also ignored Jonathan Demme’s moving treatment of the lingering personal and communal tragedy of slavery in Beloved. Both Leigh and Demme understand the spiritual challenges to despair and their richly detailed performances testify to that fact. Sidibe and Mo’Nique give two-note performances: dumb and innocent, crazy and evil. Monique’s do-rag doesn’t convey depths within herself, nor does Mariah Carey’s fright wig. Daniels’ cast lacks that uncanny mix of love and threat that makes Next Day Air so August Wilson- authentic.
Worse than Precious itself was the ordeal of watching it with an audience full of patronizing white folk at the New York Film Festival, then enduring its media hoodwink as a credible depiction of black American life. 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.