A Reflection of the Film ‘Precious’ – A Cinematic Assault on Black Womanhood

Everything is a gift of the Universe – Ken Keyes Jr.

If this film is truly a gift from the Universe, I wish I knew how to give it right back. Initially I wasn’t quite sure how to be thankful or receive any genuine satisfaction from such a horrifying plot. At the conclusion of the film, I remember sitting in paralyzing silence – actually everyone around me was as well. We all appeared to be focused on the film credits but in actuality it seemed we were all in a trance, trying to make sense of what we just experienced. I remember immediately exhaling at the fact that there were no white spectators in the theatre – I mean none that I saw – and I was shamelessly elated. Happy that I didn’t have to exit with any of them in shame; happy that I was able to experience this with my people and not hide our pain. I was free to cry, laugh with guilt at certain scenes, and reflect in silence. No matter if we dared to admit it out loud, at the very least we knew a Precious. More than likely not to such an extreme, but she wasn’t as rare as those not privy to our world would imagine. And for those of us bold enough to admit it, there were elements of Precious inside ourselves as well.

Well, I’m one of those truth warriors who isn’t afraid to face my demons nor discuss them. But Precious was grossly unique. I thought I had educated and conditioned myself past the stage of identifying with such depictions. At this moment it was clear I’ve failed. I can read; For God’s sake I have a masters degree. I no longer live in a poverty stricken neighborhood; I’ve even settled nicely with the white folks in the hills of Kentucky comfortably. So why did I feel so vulnerable? Then it hit me like ton of bricks – by society’s standards I was fat and black – and to no surprise I eat fried chicken too. Sounds silly to focus on these seeming trivialities, but I felt this film had perverted these basic elements about me, women I knew and loved, and shared them with the world most tragically. No matter how much I tried to deny Precious’ figurative existence, the more she shamefully became apart me. Us. A misconstrued pillar of black female identity and urban life.

Who did Lee Daniels think he was making her the new millennium spokesperson that most black women had fought hard to bury alive as we strived to “culture” ourselves enough to fit in, or rather go unnoticed,  all the while pitted against the universal standards of Eurocentric feminine power and beauty? Rage sets in once I remembered how much I trusted Oprah’s stamp of approval that this would be a defining moment in cinematic history – damn straight it was, yet not as I imagined. I was sitting in the theatre because I trusted her judgment as the most powerful black woman in the world! Precious single-handedly set black women back another fifty years – or so many of us like to joke. But it’s no laughing matter at all. By that I mean she is the new cultural icon of our existence. No matter how much society asserts their understanding of the complexities of the black female existence, Precious will not soon be forgotten.

I remember a friend sharing her disdain for people associating her with Precious because of her physical appearance. In the black community, obese, dark-skinned women were now jokingly referred to as such. I can’t share in the humor because I feel Gaborney Sibede has become an unfortunate inside joke. No matter how confident she appears, how fancy the custom made garments are that she wears or how flawless her make-up and weaves are, she is no “Hollywood beauty”. Hell, she had to sit in a special chair at the Academy Awards because her “kind” doesn’t frequent those type events nor venues. So why Precious? Why now?

The power and influence of cinematic depictions, especially those which utilize and seek to represent people of color, hold intrinsic value in the furtherance and implicit affirmation of stereotypical agendas that plague black women as we seek a more balanced voice within the media – particularly in Hollywood. Ironically, the conflicting nature of black conceived and produced films which purport fictive ethnographically credible accounts and insight into varied “black experiences” are most popular and acclaimed when the subject matter mirrors a raw, uncut – negative – aspect of the black existence. So why must African American producers, screenwriters and actors/actresses negatively subject people of color on the silver screen via the exposure of unfortunate tales of drama and drugs, trauma and triflingness, ghettoness and guns, and in the case of the film Precious based on the novel Push by Sapphire, ignorance, illiterateness, and incest? What exactly was Lee Daniels striving for and/or seeking to convey as he sought to bring life to the story of a fat, black, uneducated black teen now pregnant with her father’s second child? How exactly was “society” to benefit from this peculiar dedication to all the “Precious little girls of the world”, which mainstream Hollywood is already proficient in revealing and recreating?

Setting the stage in lower-class Harlem, New York, the story begins with Precious’ reflective ability to imaginatively escape her reality which is so grotesque that daydreaming becomes a means of survival and mechanism for maintaining her sanity and sense of hope. Of all things to envision, the motive behind her superficial desire for stardom featuring herself as a glamorous starlet versus a more realistically attainable fixture such as a teacher or doctor becomes more evident as she professes her longing to “be in a video like on BET and have a light-skinned boyfriend with good hair”. The “ahh ha” moment happens within the first ten minutes of the film as if to convey that Precious is no different from any other adolescent black girl who has been bamboozled and subjected to the skewed images of what being a black women entails. That happiness and success is not only defined by one’s appearance, but rooted in European standards of beauty and subjugated by the hyper-sexualized jezebel role black women have willingly accepted and portrayed for years – all in the name of fame.

I felt as if I was being coerced into putting myself in Precious’ shoes, and right then and there it was evident we would soon have more in common than I would have liked to admit; A connection and shared understanding of the societal pressures that are imposed upon young black girls across the globe. Of course I could laugh at her perceived foolish desire to be one of the hoochies – that’s what the old folks call them – in the videos, but I’d be a hypocrite not to admit I’ve shared that same sentiment as an ill-informed teen.

I began to reflect and ponder what aspects of Precious’ life did many of those video girls identify with and how these unknown happenings may have played a role in allowing them to commit to a cycle of nothingness – “selling hot pussy” – as bell hooks describes it –  their bodies, and souls for petty cash, designer clothes and top shelf libations.  In the aforementioned essay by bell hooks, I’m reminded of how imperative it is that black women don’t give up the fight to reclaim our sexual identities, but demand and recreate respectfully accurate portrayals in all mediums of American media:

“When black women relate to our bodies, our sexuality, in ways that place erotic recognition, desire, pleasure, and fulfillment at the center of our efforts to create radical black female subjectivity, we can make new and different representations of ourselves as sexual subjects. To do so we must be willing to transgress traditional boundaries. We must no longer shy away from the critical projects of openly interrogating and exploring representations of black female sexuality as they appear everywhere, especially in popular culture.” (hooks, 1992, p. 128)

Current media portrayals, especially in movies, seem to silence the voices and positive representations of dark black women who are intelligent, gentle, loving, successful mothers and wives – as if to send the message that “Dark-skin ain’t in”. It’s almost as if we can’t possess all of the aforementioned qualities at once. A quick mental reflection of the various television shows, and mostly reality series, leave my mind void of black women who accurately represent me. Before Precious, there was the ultimate bitch Omarosa from the hit serious The Celebrity Apprentice. She was dark, beautiful and intelligent. Yet she was callous, manipulative, and aggressive, all which overshadowed any good qualities she may have possessed. She was the new millennium “told you they were like that” tongue lashing, argumentative, staple black women even Tyler Perry has adopted in his films via the character Angela in his “Why Did I Get Married” series. Do these women exist? Of course! But why are these women continually popularized on television and in movies– and most concerning, why are black women comfortable playing these imbalanced depictions? In essence, we have a responsibility to ourselves and future generations to be mindful of how we project who and what we are to the world. That doesn’t imply limiting our portrayals those which only boast our best selves, but demanding a credible balance so there’s an array of black feminine voices heard, faces seen, and experiences identified with.

Precious utilized her right to remain silent, an interesting aspect of the black female existence where the media portrays black women as talking a little too much – too harsh, and most often too loud. Yet, this staple component was removed from her character and her anger was often expressed not through words, but violence. Taking away Precious’ ability to effectively communicate with others leaves her little room to resolve her problems in a civil manner. She’s held captive by her lack of confidence to free herself with words, granting power to the pressures to defend what little pride she has by exerting control over others through aggressive, violent means – a tactic created by generational pathologies passed down through the curse of her familial existence. Precious has now become a product of her environment and upbringing. A self-fulfilling prophecy based on what she knows; a result of all she’s been exposed to. She’s done nothing wrong except follow in the footsteps of the corrupt shadows before her.

In the beginning of the movie, Precious’ educational advocates were all white. I found myself extremely angry with her principal, Mrs. Lichtenstein, for her approach to Precious’ “problem” – her second pregnancy. I know the feeling all too well of being approached in a negative manner about a situation beyond the scoop of one’s control. Being consumed by a secret unable to be shared and affected mentally by its outcome. No, my life is no mirror to that of hers, but as an aspiring educator, I was dumbfounded by Lichtenstein’s brash tone and approach to an obviously troubled teen. This may have been the only moment of appreciation I have for the film, for it showcased the lack of personal concern many people in such positions have for those whom they are responsible to serve. Though it isn’t necessarily the principal’s role to save Precious from her troubles, which to her defense she isn’t even aware of the extent, I found it telling that she had already penalized and demonized Precious for them. Yet, her decision to send her to an alternative school became an opportunity of a lifetime.

I woefully ask why Ms. Rain’s dark skin, big eyes and dreaded hair, as described by Precious in the novel, was transformed in the image of Snow White by the time her character made it to the silver screen. Were these features not essential enough to preserve all the while there was due diligence in insisting that Precious’ character was brought to life in the exact form that she had been created on paper? Immediately I felt an overwhelming sense of “not again” when Blue Rain, played by actress Paula Patton, graced the screen. She was the epitome of societal blackness at its best – lean and light. She was petite, very neatly dressed, ultra feminine in her appearance and mannerism, and most notably fair-skinned. As far as I was concerned, she may as well have been white. Is that such a bad thing? Yes, when critically analyzing the correlation between color placement and the stereotypical typecasting of roles.

It was evident, yet subtle – one the most dangerous affects known to mankind. When hegemonic ideologies are subconsciously reinforced and further embedded by people of color, there’s an unfortunate amount of credibility afforded to these depictions. I highly doubt it was intentional, yet it confirms how racial roles, specifically the sanctions of colorism (which gives credence to lighter-skinned African-Americans as being more desirable and accepted) have been engrained. I began to wonder had Lee Daniels, a black man himself, noticed the message that was being conveyed to the audience – to me. Was it intentional that all the “savior” (positive and helpful) characters were of lighter descent? A pattern was starting to emerge and I didn’t like it one bit. I start to realize how bias I am because of the color of my own skin. I’m no illiterate, lazy monster. Neither are any of my dark-skinned relatives. None of us are perfect, but I’m pissed none of our good qualities made it to the silver screen for the world to see. I began to wonder was it illogical to think that depictions of positively, impactful dark-skinned people could be as easily sold and accepted as Ms. Rain had been?

As a fan of comedian/actress Monique, it didn’t surprise me one bit to learn she had no reservations about depicting the monstrous Mary Jones, Precious’ mother. She brought life to a character that earned her an Oscar. But no one seemed to be offended by Mary Jones’ appearance or color. Though I’ve never heard the following sentiment said aloud, it was as if the construction of the character was a perfect fit. Had Mary Jones resembled Blue Rain, I’m not sure it would have resonated in the psyches of viewers as soundly. Subconsciously no injustice had prevailed while witnessing a characterization of the well known “Reagan Welfare Queen”. We’ve seen this woman plenty of times before and have now come to accept her as she is. This acceptance is problematic. The American public has transformed this caricature once a figment of our imagination into our own vision of reality. And black women have looked past the evolution of such an embarrassing emblem, only addressing Mary’s image as the antecedent of how far we’ve come versus striving to eradicate what she has represented over the years.

To unconsciously internalize these images that are constantly being pushed about women of color by mainstream media is to relinquish all enjoyment of simple viewership. Believe me I know. I’ve become the emblem of amusement among friends and family for taking what I see “out of context” and “too seriously”. I long for the day where I’m satisfied by the images I’m being sold. When I can finally see myself presented before me in a positive light. When it becomes the norm and not the exception that white is right and so is black – dark and light.


1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    janks morton said,

    Brilliant! Simply brilliant! I tried to explain these exact sentiments to Roland…watch tvonethis sunday and see how we agree

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