Laughing at PRECIOUS?

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Writing about a movie like Precious (2009, Lee Daniels) is fraught with difficulties and opportunities for saying the wrong thing. As a social problem film, based on Sapphire’s novel Push, Precious attempts to illuminate, with as much visceral charge as possible, the struggles of one African American teenager to escape soul crushing poverty. The film thrusts its “reality” in the viewer’s face like a dare, effectively asking us “Can you watch this? Can you stomach this?”

For example, early in the film we see Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) washing dishes in the dim, depressing kitchen of the New York City apartment she shares  with her somewhat one-dimensionally villainous mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). In the background of the frame Mary barks questions at her daughter, the glow of the television screen reflected on her angry face. But we remain in the foreground of the shot, with Precious, as she measures her words, almost swallowing them, knowing that any response she offers will be the wrong one. Suddenly, violence explodes the frame as Mary hurls a heavy object at her daughter’s head, knocking her to the ground.  It a shocking moment that immediately cuts to a flashback of Precious being raped by her father. The filmmaker clearly wants to place the viewer in Precious’ point of view: we hear the sickening, rhythmic pulse of the creaking mattress, the crying of a baby (the product of previous sexual abuses), and the grunting of her father, who whispers to his daughter as he defiles her.  It is a truly horrifying scene.

When life becomes too intense for Precious, as it does in this scene, she imagines herself in fantasy worlds where she is a glamorous star, and thankfully, the viewer gets to go along with her (who would want to stay in that rape scene?). It is a testament to Sidibe’s acting skills that she is able to create such a vivid distinction between the woman she is in her fantasies and the woman she is in real life; one persona beams, struts and asks you to look and admire, while the other shrinks inward and demands that you look away.

The idyllic savior, Blu Rain (Paula Patton)

Although Precious swerves perilously close to the “poverty porn”  found in last year’s critical darling, Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle), I think it was able to avoid most of the pitfalls of its “children in peril” predecessor. While Slumdog  seemed to revel in its moments of high tragedy — the blinding of a young boy with hot acid, the violent raiding of a slum village, the prostitution of little girls — Precious exposes us to the horrors of its protagonist’s life but only in small bursts.  Furthermore, the message of Slumdog  seemed to be that “Poverty sucks but it will prepare you to later win a lot money in a game show, to be followed by a really fun Bollywood number in a train station with the woman of your dreams, so don’t feel too bad about it. ” Or maybe I just misread the film?

Poverty porn in Slumdog

By contrast, Precious had a more ambiguous ending. After (rightfully) refusing to allow her mother back into her life (a scene that generated a round of applause at my screening), we see Precious emerge on the streets of New York, with her two children. Precious is still poor, still only reading at an 8th grade level, still the product of (double) incest, still HIV positive, still a single mother, but she is smiling. And the non-diegetic music sounds almost triumphant.  But this is no choreographed Bollywood number. The audience does not exit the theater feeling “Phew! I’m glad it all worked out in the end.” Rather, as the credits rolled I felt that I had heard one woman’s story, that this story was still unfolding somewhere, and that she still had much to do.

Thus, I was relieved to find that Precious was not nearly as exploitative as I thought it would be (though many critics disagree), but this does not sum up my experience of the film. While I sat in my chair, horrified and saddened by the images on the screen, something very different was happening in that sold out movie theater. People were laughing. A lot.

Our Dickensian villain

For example, one of the film’s most (at least for me) emotionally powerful scenes is where Mary (Mo’Nique) finally admits to her culpability in the repeated raping of her daughter (and yes, Mo’Nique truly deserves all the buzz she has been getting for this role). I don’t think we are intended to empathize with Mary in this scene, but we do gain some insight into how her home became a nightmare of rape and anger and jealousy. It is difficult for Mary to vocalize these horrible things and the weight of this confession causes her to blubber and sputter. I cried during this scene but most of the people in the theater were laughing. It was a curious moment for me because I wondered if these people were just hard-hearted cynics or if  maybe I was just a sap.

When I got home that night I began to search online to see if this phenomenon had happened anywhere else and was surprised to see that it had (go here, here and here ). So what to make of this laughter? I have a few ideas:

1. The Mo’Nique Factor

As I mentioned, Mo’Nique was really wonderful and convincing in this role. But, as we all know, Mo’Nique is first and foremost a comedienne. And fans of her work, who would be lured to the film, curious to see this actress in a new role, possibly found it difficult to take her seriously.

Mo'Nique the Comedienne

2. People were Uncomfortable

It is awkward to watch images of rape and child abuse in any setting, but in a crowded theater it becomes even more awkward. And given that Precious was punctuated with fantasy images and moments of genuine comic relief, I think laughter may have been a natural response during those moments of stunned silence, when the images onscreen were simply too horrifying to process.

3. The Tyler Perry Factor

Precious is not a Tyler Perry film, but he did co-produce it (along with Oprah Winfrey) and his name was linked with the film in the media blitz leading up to its release ( also here and here). Other Perry-directed films, like The Family that Preys (2009) and Madea’s Family Reunion (2002), mix broad comedy with moments of real tragedy. Therefore, any audience members drawn into the theaters based on Tyler’s brand name may have been expecting to laugh.

Tyler Perry

4. It Really Is Poverty Porn

Initially I was a bit disturbed by the audience’s response to this film. How could they laugh at such tragedy? But after mulling it over for a few days I started wonder if maybe I was the one who was responding inappropriately to Precious. Maybe this audience, which was 70% African American, was laughing, not at the tragedy of Precious’ life, but at the audacity of Hollywood and its attempts, once again, to make African American life into a horror show.  Armond White, whose scathing review has been quoted all over the internet, writes that:

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.

While I think White engages in a bit of a hyperbole in his review (Little Man [2006, Keenan Ivory Wayans] is a better film? Really?), he does make a good point: does Precious merely assuage liberal guilt over the persistance of the profound  class and racial divides in this country by allowing the haves to weep over the fates of the have-nots? Perhaps the laughter of those around me was a way of rejecting or resisting this Hollywood offering, of refusing to cry over images that are calculated to make us do just that?

So to sum up this contradictory post: my experience of Precious left me feeling confused (and even ashamed) about my relationship with the film image and about the role that film can and should play in the depiction of social problems. Can a film about a suffering individual ever avoid being conflated with an entire social group? Can these films ever not be poverty porn? What is the value in putting these images on the big screen?

I would love to hear your thoughts about this film and your experiences watching it the theaters.

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8 thoughts on “Laughing at PRECIOUS?

    Will said:
    November 25, 2009 at 9:06 am

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I have to say that your blog, this post especially, is so smart and interesting … it kinda blows me away … I’d wondered about the “poverty porn” in this one, so your take is useful. I also wondered, as I do about certain kinds of films that contain a camp aesthetic, if there’s a way of watching this movie and not being utterly distraught at the end. Most of my African American Facebook friends who have seen it have had different responses from my non-African American FB friends (which is a real powerful sampling of double-blind research, I know!) … but made me wonder that point that you get to above about audience expectations and renderings …

    Amanda's brother said:
    November 25, 2009 at 10:47 am

    I haven’t seen the movie and probably won’t until it comes out on DVD, but I have a few observations:

    1) The reason “Slumdog Millionaire” was so successful was that it was a timeless “guy has to get his gal back” tale. We’ve seen it a million times but never in a Bollywood type setting. I really don’t see it as poverty porn. It was much too stylized for that.

    2) Perhaps the reason people were laughing was that the movie had become absurd by that point. People can only take so much suffering in a character before it becomes parody. Again, I haven’t seen it so I don’t know if it was over the top or not.

    3) Finally, please don’t quote Armond White. He is a hack and a troll. I mean, the guy thought “Transformers 2” and “Death Race” were great movies while ripping “There Will Be Blood” and “District 9”. Roger Ebert wrote a great column on this that I would recommend to you.

    Wendy said:
    November 25, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    I’ve also been pondering the laughter since seeing the movie. In the scene you mention–the one in which Precious’s mother is attempting to explain her reasons for allowing the abuse to continue and for her misplaced blame for that abuse–I heard a definite scoffing tone in much of the laughs nearby. It was incredulous, scathing laughter, as if those laughing were saying “ha ha ha, bitch–don’t make me laugh at your too little, too late tears.” Perhaps because the character was presented so despicably during the rest of the movie, many in the audience were not willing to try to understand or in any way feel empathy for her.

    To some extent, this unrelenting portrayal of Precious’s mother’s warped thinking (I keep thinking about the scene after she drops the baby on the floor, tries to drop a TV on Precious’s head, and then gently moves her content-looking cat off of her chair before she sits back down) deflects attention from the issues of systemic racism and poverty. We have this nearly (or completely for those who scoffed at her tears) irredeemably evil character who can absorb a lot of the blame for what happens to Precious.

    Randall said:
    December 1, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Wendy, I thought that disturbing the cat was the one likable thing that Evil Mama did. Those damn complacent felines need the occasional shove.

    As for the audience laughter, I tend to think it was because of discomfort. My students tend to snicker when reading or viewing especially intimate moments, such as when an impotent Clyde Barrow turns away from the ultra-alluring Bonnie (in “Bonnie and Clyde”) or when a character in a Tobias Wolff story gets an erection at an embarrassing time (in the story “Two Boys and a Girl”). As Amanda points out, intimate moments shown in a public space can cause this nervous laughter.

    On the other hand, the laughter seemed less nervous than disdainful in my classroom situations. My student’s laughter seems meant as a show of superiority over a character or a way of distancing from a character’s predicament. “Ha ha,” goes the laughter, “good thing I’m not like poor old Clyde. Not me, no sir. I’m utterly secure in my manhood.”

    I’m not sure if this kind of distancing was going on in the Precious screening, but the way Evil Mama is presented makes it easy for even the most despicable audience member to wrap themselves in a Snuggy-like feeling of cozy reassurance: “I may be bad, but I’m not that bad.”

    princesscowboy responded:
    December 1, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    @ Wendy: during the screening I did not hear the audience laughter as incredulity but now I think it might have been.

    @ Adam (aka, Amanda’s brother): Slumdog is poverty porn precisely because it is so stylized. We go from over the top scenes of suffering (filmed beautifully, I might add) to a sentimental love story. And I don’t agree that Armond White is a “hack” though I do question his judgment at times.

    Joyce Graye said:
    December 7, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    It is my belief that this film exposes one family in a very real reality. If someone wants to reduce Precious’ experience to poverty porn, that is because they themselves see porn, as might someone viewing the statue of David as porn.

    The images where unthinkable, but maybe we should think. I was struck by the ending. Her triumph was to simply survive. No bells or parades, no fame or money, Just her ongoing struggling life.

    What a dose of reality. As she smiles!

    Bravo*

    Joyce Ramsay Graye

    Chris Kreitlein said:
    February 25, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    I saw the movie last night in a nearly empty theater – me (a middle-aged white guy) and two young black women were about the only ones in the audience. I have told people today that everyone in America should see this movie. Of course it is depressing and disturbing… but the reality portrayed is so current that it must be acknowledged and confronted. The movie was extremely well-made – despite two incidents I noticed of the sound boom intruding into the scene. The school scenes – white teachers and administrators trying to teach a generation of black kids who could not care less about learning anything – was extremely accurate. I taught high school in inner-city Baltimore and know exactly how the poor math teacher felt. The portrait painted of the black community was so dismal I am surprised the film has not generated more discussion from black leadership…. I can only suppose it is because they (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc.) always look to blame whites and there were no whites in this movie to blame. Interesting.

    Ryan N. said:
    July 26, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    I find the commenter scoffing at Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton offensive, personally.

    I was also in a movie theatre where there was a lot of laughing, and I was extremely uncomfortable with it. In my showing, the people laughed hardest at Precious falling down the stairs. I don’t think the incredulity or any of that figured in there. Nervous/discomfort laughter could be something. Also, if you saw the director on the Daily Show, some of what he says makes me think there may be something that he and the laughing audience understands that I don’t? I’m not sure. He specifically mentions making it through this movie with comedy, but I don’t know if he’s talking about any of the parts that we are. There was some outright humor in the movie as well.

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-february-11-2010/lee-daniels

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