Birth of a Nation
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.