Thursday, October 22, 2009

Precious: an inner-city horror story

“A pathetic ghetto girl”

Precious comes to theaters November 6. The film is based on Sapphire’s novel, Push, and directed by Lee Daniels. To watch the film’s trailer, click here.

Film critic, Duane Byrge calls Precious an “inner-city horror story.” Its protagonist is “a pathetic ghetto girl . . . [c]alled ‘Precious,’ who is “illiterate, overweight, emotionally abused by her deadbeat mother” and “impregnated twice by her father.” To read the rest of Byrge’s review, click here.

The film won three awards at the Sundance Film Festival and has earned rave reviews from audiences and critics alike.

“An ideal eye opener for white middle-class suburbia”

In The New Yorker, Jenna Krajeski points out that Precious depicts a world “so often invisible to the mainstream media.” One blogger praised the film for “deal[ing] with many issues … common in the [African American] community,” including “absentee fathers, teen pregnancy, parental abuse and extreme dysfunction, obesity, idealized images and beauty standards, sexuality, self love and hate, and colorism.” To read the full blog entry, click here.’s customer reviews of Push echo Krajeski’s observation. One customer read the novel with her “feminist book club.” In her review, she called it “an ideal eye-opener for White, middle-class suburbia.” Another customer wrote, “If we remain as deaf as most of the white people in this book, heaven help us.” To read more reviews of Push, click here.

“I didn’t want to exploit black people”

Overwhelmingly, reviewers have praised Precious and Push for their “brutal honesty” Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Precious’s hard-luck story sings with poetic beauty and resonates with ugly truth.” To read the full review, click here.

Other reviewers are less impressed with the film's depiction of the “ugly truth” of urban poverty. One viewer criticized the film for “focus[ing] on depicting the girl’s horrific situation” rather “than on presenting a rounded picture of Harlem life.” Another viewer slammed the film for “pandering to give a typical film festival audience what the script writer/director thinks it wants” (reinforcing insulting stereotypes). To read these reviews, click here.

Responding to criticism that his film reinforces negative stereotypes, Lee Daniels says,

To be honest, I was embarrassed to show this movie at Cannes. I didn’t want to exploit black people. And I wasn’t sure I wanted white French people to see our world. … But because of Obama, it’s now O.K. to be black. I can share that voice. I don’t have to lie. I’m proud of where I come from. And I wear it like a shield. ‘Precious’ is part of that.
To read more of Daniels’s comments, click here.

“Education through fiction”

Precious exposes audiences to serious social problems, like poverty, racism, sexism, incest, and illiteracy (just to name a few). A film could be the ideal tool for educating the public about these problems. John W. Erwin, the director of The Stories Exchange Project, writes,

I think that if there is some problem, and you want people to understand this problem, then it’s much better to tell some stories about it than to use just cold facts. I hope that these stories will reach people’s hearts. This is always true of stories. Using stories is the best way to educate people and to get them to understand.

On the other hand, Precious could reinforce negative stereotypes. Studies indicate that “fiction encourages students to shape opinions and their opinion-forming skills.” For instance, one study found a direct link between popular movies and high school students’ opinions on genome research. To read the study, click here. In his forthcoming book, Real Role Models, Joah Spearman discusses how the media “regularly hold[s] up African-Americans, both real and fictionalized, as representations of the entire race.”

Will audiences be able to distinguish Precious’s “horrific situation” from typical Harlem life? One can only hope.

Precious comes to theaters next month. I suspect it will be well-directed and entertaining. It will probably go on to win more awards, maybe even an Oscar. But I’m wary of its pedagogical value.

I agree with Spearman. When I taught high school English, I made the mistake of assigning Push to sheltered suburban students. Like Erwin, I thought the book would "educate people and to get them to understand." Precious's story got their attention, but it also reinforced damaging stereotypes. Many of my students assumed that every African American teenager experiences poverty, illiteracy, incest, and the list goes on... When they reviewed the book, several students thanked me for assigning it because "Now they understood what it was like to be black" (and similar comments). I dropped the book from my curriculum the following year.

If Precious is going to be an “eye-opener for White, middle-class suburbia,” then we need make sure the "horror story" isn't the only thing we're seeing.

1 comment:

Anon5 said...

I noticed an article about the film in the New York Times a few days ago and I once I started reading it I had to finish. Precious certainly sounds like it has the potential to be a really influential movie.

You pose some really interesting questions about the educational value of the movie. My hope is that if the movie ends up being widely distributed, the publicity surrounding the film will help explain that the film's purpose is to educate rather than exploit. I don't think that will completely prevent the movie from reinforcing negative stereotypes. But, if people go into the movie at least being exposed to the notion that the film has a loftier purpose, hopefully the discussions they have about the film will be more constructive, and maybe they really will learn something.