Armond White: Precious is the Most damaging Film to the Black Image Since ‘Birth of a Nation’

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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

http://www.nypress.com/article-20554-pride-precious.html

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.

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Comments

  1. Bravo.

    Those of African descent need to understand the meaning of Propaganda and then learn how destructive it is to the subconscious. Thank you for shining light!

  2. You had me until you brought Norbit into the discussion.
    None the less I will use this article as a high road argument when my wife tries to get me into this chick flick. er I’m sorry I meant this “Pity party bait and switch of our social priorities” I need to rehearse that line ;-)

    Joking aside that was an interesting perspective but since I will never see the movie I can’t agree or disagree.

  3. I don’t have intentions of seeing this flick or the other one featuring the homeless teen who turns into a pro football player with the help of some saviors.

  4. we had the same critics pointing this out during the color purple 24 years ago, the saga continues.

  5. Robert Jr. James McClendon says:

    I apologize, everyone. i onlt read the head line to this discussion. If “Precoius” will do what the movies “Super Fly” and “Colors did to our image and way of thinking, it is a terrible movie. I have not seen the movie, but I believe they raked in about 8.9 million total from last week. Controversy sells. If this is what it takes to sell more tickets with controversey and skarking curiousity – go for it. A Birth of A nation? Please!!! Never read this one, sorry!

  6. Robert Jr. James McClendon says:

    I apologize, everyone. I only read the head-line of this discussion. If the movie “Precious” will do what the movies “Super Fly” and “Colors” did to our image and way of thinking, IT MUST BE A TERRIBLE MOVE. I have not seen the movie yet, but I believe they raked in about 8.9 million total last week. Controversy sells. If this is what it perhaps takes to generate more ticket sales – using controversy and sparking curiousity – go for it. A Birth of A Nation? What movie was he watching? Please!!! Never read this pass the head-line folks, sorry!

  7. Besides do you think Italians or the Irish get treated fairly by hollywood? Did anyone see Angela’s Ashes?

    CDF – The movie you’re talking about with the footballer and the white family, that’s not the same as the above. It’s something that really happened.

  8. b lo Tim:

    Yeah, I first heard of that story a while back on some morning news show, so I’m aware of the source. I just tossed that in with the context of the article.

  9. This same type of bs is what got Amos and Andy off the air. one of our main problems is that we still care about what others think. we’ll not make certain movies or tv shows in fear that we are insulting EVERY black person on Earth. as versitle as we are, we ONLY one image of us portrayed. to hell with others think. black people are the creators of music, movies, and art that have ALWAYS been criticized. however it never stopped us from being us. i could care less about what others think of what we do, but i’m baffled when it’s us who destroy our own art and those who creates it.
    the Beverly Hillbillies is still in re-runs, and shows like My Name Is Earl is winning awards. does that mean that every white person are like the characters we see on those shows? as black people we have our Precious and our Coby’s. every now and then both should have their time in the limelight. we are funny, serious, and sometimes satire. NO ONE should tell us that we should only portray one image especially considering how versitle we are.

  10. REVISED: as versitle as we are, we ONLY want one image of us portrayed.

  11. …Haven’t seen it, but the character was a composite of actual incidents of individuals the author had contact with as some kind of social worker. And I personally have encountered numerous similar tragic life stories of teen girls in my work.

    Whatever the slant, presentation, twist or lighting of the film, the storyline has happened and does … So it has value from that perspective, whatever the director’s/producers’ agenda. The author needs to accept that, live with it, get over it and then deal with it appropriately by making a true difference in the lives of others and not a knee-jerk rhetorical article. “Norbit”?????? whateva…

  12. A sad black mother says:

    I agree with the writer – I think the producer of the film is a wacked job like the slave ship pushers Winfrey and Perry – what better way to keep someone coming to you then to be little them and take them in to a world that’s unknown but know by many in the grave or psycho wards alike. Honestly I seen monster ball – it was terrible, I seen shawdow boxer – monique was the crack head who catches her white doctor licking another black chicks coochie and then gets merked in the end for turning him in. Go figure but blacks are ususally their own worst enemy – If i can’t see this on bootleg then i will not see it.

  13. A sad black mother says:

    it does happen but it is a belittlement.

  14. I have not seen the movie yet and don’t know if I will. However, I think this article does as much denigrating and belittling as the writer accuses Winfrey & Perry of doing to the Black community. Calling The Great Debaters and The Pursuit of Happyness bourgeois movies…which were based on actual events and elevating Norbit, Little Man, Next Day Air, & Meet Dave as ‘excellent black-themed films’ is like saying Mantan was a great role model for someone who’s afraid to walk under a ladder. This long diatribe discrediting this film and then trying to convince the reader that the films cited above were actually positive images is as comedic as it is tragic. This author must be as angry with the black community as he claims Daniels et. al are if he thinks Eddie Murphy dressing up as an obese African American woman who belittles and demeans a skinny African American man with no spine is somehow a good representation of black life. He needs to get off the crack pipe…
    Furthermore, referring to the main title actress as “hippopotamus-like” does nothing to support his argument concerning the sociological value of the film. Instead it is a cheap, personal shot at the young lady who would dare to show her face in a movie because she is obese.
    Again, I haven’t seen the movie, but I definitely won’t be reading anything else by this author…

  15. Now Mr. White, you have a right to your own opinions even if I strongly disagree. But you have to be an idiot to call films like Cadilac Records, Norbit, and First Sunday excellent films. We don’t need themes that depict Black men slobbering on a Black woman’s breast as glorified musicians. And Eddie Murphy showing his nasty, filthy, dark side in Norbit is just pure black trash which sadly enough overshadows the true talent that guy really does possess. You just don’t like Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, and that’s fair, but you show us an extreme lack of wisdom and judgement with your comments. Really, your rationale shows you are simply stupid.

  16. On the same weekend that “Precious,” a story about a young black girl abused by both her mother and father, was released, the movie “The Blindside”, a story about a young black man saved by a white family was released.

  17. Hollywood by its very disposition is a propaganda machine. I prefer watching the Spike Lee joints though. We should create our own brand of the movie industry like the Indians did with Bollywood, it works for them. The fact that Oprah is supporting this movie, is an immediate sign that bullshit is heading our way, because no one can be a bigger Uncle Tom than Oprah.

  18. I rarely comment on these blogs, but I will make my debut with a ” Negro Please…”.

    I assume that you feel ” The Color Purple and “Roots” , with there images of illiterate un-refined black folk, werealso damaging to the black race.
    I have seen this film and it was quite disturbing. But racist ? No. The story could have been about a poor white family just as easily.

    To borrow a quote from smokey robinson, “you never heard white people protesting the beverly hillbillies..”

  19. Robert Jr. James McClendon says:

    Chad, I was feeling you all the way up to you had to borrow a quote from Smokey? :) It ain’t that deep you all. Most of us will not support it and “may” catch it on bootleg. Made about 21 million so far. Saving my critique after I see it. Maybe dude was trying to promote the movie with a controversial review. Who knows?

  20. HealThySelf says:

    I am pleased to say I read the book and I saw the movie. The author Sapphire is a good writer and the movie was an excellent but painful depiction of one of the true ills in our community. . My life work has mainly taken place in the healing industry in Oakland, CA. where dysfunction runs rampant. I also revisited Roots the movie this weekend. After reading this article in its full EGOTISTICAL glory, I wonder if it is not our so called educated NEGROES such as Master’s Armond White with his command of the Kings English that keeps African Americans STUPID.
    Let us please STOP BEING IN DENIAL.
    African Americans and those of the African Diaspora are still experiencing Trauma and Abuse daily from the effects of slavery, and the history of community and global violence. The more we continue to be ashamed by the TRUTH OF THE STORY and collude with those who are committing these horrible acts, the less power we have to HEAL. In your spare time take a look at Monique’s docu-standup, ” I COULD BE YOUR CELLMATE”. Do you think that the thousands of women of all colors that are in prison choose this path? No, someone raped them, sodomized them or just didn’t love them. So, stop being in denial and making comments so eloquently about a deep pain that you may have not experienced. Unless you were actually a victim and are still in denial then that would explain why this brings up so much for you.
    Please WAKE UP… The majority of the bloggers who commented, admitted to not seeing the movie or reading the book, but because of your acinine thoughts and ego. ” Oh poor Mr. White, he had to watch this movie with other white people at the New York Film festival”, Oops, we are the other white people sometime. They do not have to do anything to us because we do it to ourselves. We harshly criticize and condemn any achievement, glorify foolishness. Did you really write all this and then suggest NORBIT as a good movie.? No way, someone put you up to this. So until you have made the contributions to the healing of society that Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey or anyother person who is assisting with the change that we all need, stop creating division. You seem to be the agent of damage not the agent for change.

  21. So not interested in Armond White screeching and throwing his hands up. Be brave. Don’t look away. I’m with Healthyself, there was too much empty, egotistical pontificating in the article that is way past it’s sell by date. History can be better but only if you are prepared to do something otherwise step aside. Apologies if I come across as self righteous, I’m not, I found the film raw, deeply disturbing and unpleasant in parts but very, very powerful.

  22. Robert Jr. James McClendon says:

    HeallThySelf, just to get you to think a little, I can not critique the “Precious” movie because I have not seen it yet, but lets not forget Hollywood has never really been the African American man’s best friend, either. I also want you to understand what our young sons and daughters will take away from this movie; even though they aren’t supposed to see it at the movies, Oh! Hollywood “plans” on them seeing it on cable, is perhaps the same message that “Black men are so bad to Black women that’s why Black women need to succeed without the Black Man ” may still be being sent to our youth. I did not read the book nor saw the movie, but I do know about “Hollywood”, histoy, and subliminal perception. I do not disagree that we need to “Wake Up! But I got a storyalso that’s “real” that will shock and change some things – but you can bet Hollywood don’t want to do that type of “truthful” movie. I never read the Armond White dude’s critique. I just commented. He looks like he’s full of s**t. Hired by…

  23. More “talk” wasted on debating the obvious vice challenging BET, Clear Channel, etc. White folks give Three 6 Mafia an Oscar, countless blacks have demoralizing “reality” shows, Disney and Nickelodeon have yet to air a positive black show and he thinks Perry and Winfrey are the antagonistic propagandists? It’s deeper than most of us could fathom and until we hold ourselves accountable first for our own actions and strive to change our own surroundings, this brother is just spitting in the wind and preaching to the choir. The sad reality is that these problems, though taboo, do exist in the black community. I am all for ANY example I can have to shine a light on the problem. Maybe then we will work on finding solutions to them vice getting offended when someone else points the plank in our eye out. Peep out Very Young Girls for more “propaganda.”

  24. HealThySelf says:

    I must say I was a bit upset when I read the blog by Mr. White. I am well aware of Subliminal messages, and today the messages and info being shot at our psyches, adults as well as children are not subliminal. They are direct hits. We all must be viligant about what we allow into our minds. Most animation on the screens and in our homes are for ADULTS and three year old watch, Family Guy and music videos that promote various types of sexual experiences and violence. I just think that we all need to go deeper and pay close attention in this age of communication and technology.

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  26. Taunja Isaac says:

    Some of the Afro-Americans in this world can watch Precious and know that it is just a story and and not a stereotype of all of us. I thought it was a sad story, but it does happen. Some people in real life do go thru rough times as depicted in Precious. Incest happens in all cultures some more than others. I thought the fact that she let this man abuse her daughter in order to keep him was the most heart wrenching part of the movie. This is a issue that bothers me when any parent, man or women puts a relationship before the welfare of their children. Interpretation is the key here. Birth of a nation was made by the white people and Roots was made by Alex Hailey, a black man.

  27. i noticed the person who wrote this article and most of ones agreeing with it are males black and/ or white. as a black female. i can only say to you black males that i think you are ashamed that this has come to light. be in denial or what ever it is, but the story of precious happens more often than you think. you are writing about things you have no knowledge of.

    What do you of reaching puberty and having almost every male with a block radius of your home sniffing after you no matter how young you are. What do you know of a girls mother bringing home a man to love and care for her and her kids only to have this person eyeing the young girls in the family when she is not looking or finally what do you know of a girl reaching puberty and being told by her mother to let her know when guys start paying attention to her so they can benefit financially somehow from it.

    You dont know. I think you are only offended by this film because it shows that black america as it has been potrayed by media and most importantly by ourselves, didnt even scratch the surface of what really happens in lower socio-econical families or neighborhoods. just like i cant speak for the emasculation of the black male, i dont think you can speak of the often hidden degradation of black women. You can’t speak of the place their minds have to go to cope with this, and the walls often misconstrued as hostility or the feeling of hoplessness of the situation. Although it does not represent all of black america, it represents more of them than you will ever know.

  28. While looking at this I couldn’t help but think about how very few people are mentioning that controversial film critic Armond White has written a book on the subject of Michael Jackson that may very well be the best EVER on the subject. –

    The book is called, “KEEP MOVING: The Michael Jackson Chronicles”. It’s a collection of articles on Michael Jackson written over the last 25 years. Published in the fall of 2009, the book is slowly earning praise from a variety of readers. If interested, Google the title for ordering information.

  29. It’s very trouble-free to find out any topic on net as compared to textbooks, as I found this paragraph at this site.

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