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Race Card: Ishmael Reed on “Precious”

If you've yet to read Ishamel Reed's editorial "Fade to White" in the New York Times about Precious, get to it post-haste! In the piece, Reed makes excellent points about portrayals of black men in popular culture and why the film has received such a favorable reception from whites but been met with resistance in the black community.

"The blacks who are enraged by Precious have probably figured out that this film wasn't meant for them," Reed writes. "It was the enthusiastic response from white audiences and critics that culminated in the film being nominated for six Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an outfit whose 43 governors are all white…

Reed also points out that Barbara Bush is among those extolling the film's virtues. He quotes her remarking in Newsweek that youths like Precious are everywhere. Oprah made similar comments, further popularizing the film among white viewers.

"Are Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey suggesting, on the basis of a fictional film, that incest is widespread among black families?" Reed asks. "Statistics tell us that it's certainly no more prevalent among blacks than whites. …[But] given the news media's tendency to use scandals involving black men, both fictional and real, to create 'teaching tools' about the treatment of women, it was inevitable that a black male character associated with incest would be used to begin some national discussion about the state of black families."

I couldn't agree more with Reed here. The transgressions of black men are often used to explore the thorniest issues in the underbelly of American society. Because topics such as domestic abuse and incest still make people uncomfortable, it's easier to explore these issues by presenting them as "black" problems. That's, in part, why there was much more media focus on O.J. Simpson's murder trial than, say, Phil Spector's or Robert Blake's; why Tiger Woods' infidelity generated the public interest it did; and why, as I recently blogged about, Chris Brown has seemingly taken more heat for assaulting Rihanna than Charlie Sheen has for his reported attack on Brooke Mueller and other women in the past.

But Precious isn't just problematic because it links black men with incest but because it fails to indict institutional racism and capitalism for the plight of those in America's inner cities. One of the reasons whites received Precious so well is because the film doesn't hold them accountable in any way, Reed posits.

"In guilt-free bits of merchandise like Precious, white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans," Reed writes. "Problems that members of the black underclass encounter are a result of their culture, their lack of personal responsibility."

Given this underlying message, is it surprising that a conservative like Barbara Bush would embrace the film?

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Comments

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Yes!

I LOVED Reed's piece—so much so that I read it aloud to my partner and intermittently slapped him on the arm while doing so with enthusiasm—and I'm so glad you covered it here. It has to be one of the most hard-hitting pieces in the Times in a long while. Is it just me or would an endorsement by Barb Bush—particularly of something so far outside of her own racial/class-based experience—make anyone think twice about embracing something so blindly? That Reed conflates the endorsements of Oprah and Barbara kind of makes me smile too, since I'm endlessly tired of Oprah's nonsensical, inconsistent judgment being used as a bellwether.

The only thought I had when

The only thought I had when I read this:

"Reed also points out that Barbara Bush is among those extolling the film’s virtues. He quotes her remarking in Newsweek that youths like Precious are everywhere. Oprah made similar comments, further popularizing the film among white viewers."

I think on the surface those comments are correct. I'm not attributing either comment to race though (maybe in the original context Oprah and Barbara Bush were). There are youths in horrible situations everywhere, regardless of race.

I Must Wholeheartedly DISAGREE

I don't know what world Reed is living in - did he even see the film? read the novel Push, which it was based on? hear the way it was received by white media?

Most comments that I've heard from whites have not been overwhelmingly favorable. Most of what I've heard is that the film "promotes victim-hood politics", whatever that means. And it doesn't. Out of all the reviews for the film itself, probably 20% of what I've read is positive.

“In guilt-free bits of merchandise like Precious, white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans,” Reed writes.

Ummmm, what white characters? The math teacher who's there for only 3 minutes in both the novel and the film that shows us Precious' internal feelings toward him? The oblivious school principal who who's there even less time in both the novel and the film who refers Precious to the special school? And what exactly is this guilt-free merchandise LIKE Precious? If you've done any reading about Sapphire, the author of the novel, you would know that Push was inspired by brilliant works such as The Color Purple and The Bluest Eye. Yeah, that guilt-free merchandise? OK.

The novel was brilliant. The film was brilliant. I don't give a hell what Barbara Bush says about it because she doesn't know what she's talking about. Enjoy it for what it is, and let's stop derailing, making it into something it's not. Because it's NOT a novel/film about "the transgressions of black men". It's a novel/film about a young girl who refused to succumb, a forgotten girl who PUSHED!!!

: ) Thank you.

: )

Thank you.

And what about the GAY card?

Lee Daniels -
"In the Black American community, homophobia is rampant, says Daniels to Clay Cane of Bet.com. " I think it is very difficult to be out, gay and Black. I feel very much alone, especially amongst my people. It's a very lonely place. I'm not going to live a f*cking lie. I'd rather get stoned, be made fun of and take a bullet." He adds, "It's not cute being out, but it's a really important part of the story that I think is overlooked."
http://loldarian.blogspot.com/2009/11/precious-director-lee-daniels-on-b...

Sapphire -
"Well, as a bisexual woman who has never been in the closet, it was very hard for me when I encountered homophobia, and I couldn't back away from that in my characters - it would have been a disservice to what I was trying to do not to have Precious confront her ignorance. Precious has to deal with this and somehow incorporate it into dealing with her other problems. She has to go outside of her community, to people who she's been taught are in some ways her enemies, to get the help she needs."
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1285/is_n6_v26/ai_18450196/

Contrary to Ms. Kareem's opinion, (http://www.racialicious.com/2009/04/07/black-people-more-homophobic-your...) I'm not surprised so many in the African American community dislike this film, considering it was directed by a gay man and based on the novel of a lesbian.

Somewhat...

See, I don't think the negative reception in the "Black Community" has anything to do with homophobia - most people don't even know who Lee Daniels or Sapphire are to begin with, much less about their sexual orientation. I personally think it has more to do with the 'airing of dirty laundry', and misreading the works as critical of black men.

You see this a lot with films that portray Jewish characters in a less than flattering light. There's the predictable knee-jerk reaction among idealogues, there are (a few) cries of anti-Semitism... take the latest Coen brothers' film for example. They're Jewish. The film they just made - which included a Jewish main character that wasn't a suffering angel or vengeful doler out of justice - was based on actual events in their lives. And there were some who wanted to be offended. Even though it was a true story. But they were missing the point of the story to begin with.

When I went to go see Precious in the theater, this is what I was confronted with: a 99% black audience in Little Rock, Arkansas that largely chuckled and tried to laugh through the whole film. But you can't. And many people DO NOT want to be challenged, confronted, or made uncomfortable. And it's a VERY uncomfortable film/novel. So since many didn't really understand what the film was about before they went in, and found that they couldn't just escape once they got into the story, and came out emotionally spent, some chose to grab onto one part of the backstory just so that they could have something to feel dissatisfied with.

ANYONE who saw Precious or read Push and came away with the notion that it's a story about bad Black men, and that it was written and produced to make white people feel better, are being emotionally dishonest and failing to engage the subject matter as a whole. For once, we have this character that you NEVER see in films hardly, and she's given a voice to tell her story, and people take that voice away by insisting that the story isn't about her.

So, in short, I don't think the negative reception is a result of homophobia.

And why exactly should she

And why exactly should she push? She's HIV positive, has two kids, and no real education? The book and movie were ghetto fiction trajiporn of the worst kind. There was no hope for her, there was no redeeming message. You get the same message from Don Quixote, he charges those windmills and gets knocked on his ass every time. Had she had somewhere to go, a ray of hope for real change and any tool to do it, then there's redemption. Otherwise the triumph of the human spirit rings hollow in a universe set to screw her over at every turn.

No redeeming message??

Are you serious? You didn't even see the film, did you? You DEFINITELY did not read the book, and then say that. OF COURSE there was hope for her, that was the whole point! She learned, challenged herself, and recognized the vicious cycle she was caught up in and chose not to succumb to it. She identified the dysfunction in her life, pledged not to consciously pass it on to her offspring, and took major steps to do so. SHE was the one taking action in her life to make it better. All agency was HERS, with others who helped along the way.

Smh&muttering... - I really don't think you even saw the film or read the book... ay ay ay...

Oh they saw the movie

Oh they saw the movie alright. Their point was that the deck was holy stacked against her, and the whole idea of not taking it lying down was moot because she had no chance for success.

Honestly...

...I have no idea how anyone can come to the conclusion that Precious "had no chance for success."

What in the film and/or novel made you come to this conclusion? I'm seriously asking, because it's beyond me how anyone could draw that from the film and/or novel. Unless you're one of those people who, when taking in a story, need to have everything wrapped up for you in a nice package so that you know what is what and what happened to who and we can all know our places in the world. And I don't want to be the condescending type of person that would assume that that's what you look for in a story...

I disagree as well. What

I disagree as well. What white characters, exactly? Which white characters help her?

It's obvious this person never saw the movie and never read the book. I mean, sheesh, it's a movie made and financed by black people, based on a novel written by a black woman, starring black actors, directed by a black man, and the screenplay was written by a black man. Where exactly are the white people?

I'd wager...

that most of that commentary is based on the false premise that Mariah Carey is white, or that her character is intended to be read as white. A lot of people think so because she was never marketed as a singer of color or actress of color.

(cont)

I want to be clear that I know Carey is an actress and singer of color, and that she identifies as a woman of color, but that I would be utterly unsurprised if a LOT of white people watching that movie presumed her to be white.

I don't disagree that the

I don't disagree that the outpooring of white support for this film is suspect to many things, however, I don't think it's fair to downplay the severity of the novel Push or the adapted film. I think it's important movies like Precious are being made and even more so when they brutally showcase the realities of some young women. There needs to be a space in 'art' and media where sexual violence/incest and abuse are shoved right in our faces. A lot of African Americans put their heart and soul into the creation and production of the film. Are you going to tell them what they did was only to feed white peoples negative stereotypes of the black community? I am sure they would say otherwise.

This whole post really bothered me.

I disagreed wholly with this interpretation of Precious. I think this type of ideology cheapens the message of hope that is embedded in the film. OK, it didn't have the most positive portrayal of black men, but, let's face it, it was a story about women, not men, and I don't think that Sapphire's story should be changed just so that black men can be seen in a different light.

It's a story.

If a film demonized white males, it might come under some criticism ... but, c'mon, it's a story. I would never compromise a story in order to be more politically correct.

And the last sentence in this post was just really narrow-minded.

"Given this underlying message, is it surprising that a conservative like Barbara Bush would embrace the film?"

Really? That's so petty. Mrs. Bush may have conservative views, but I'd like to think she can appreciate and respect a good story when she experiences it. I think that last comment was disrespectful and showed immaturity on the part of the writer.

The Conservative Message

The last sentence was in response to Reed's point that "Precious'" underlying message was that poor blacks are responsible for their own plight. I consider this a politically conservative viewpoint, as conservatives often discuss people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, as if social structures play no role in keeping certain groups of people poor, uneducated, medically underserved, etc. That's why I wrote, "Given this underlying message, is it surprising that a conservative like Barbara Bush would embrace the film?" I was attacking conservatism moreso than Bush herself. As for presenting men of color badly, there's a history of doing this in films such as "The Color Purple," "Joy Luck Club," etc., and I think it's problematic, but that's another discussion. Lastly, perhaps Reed should've discussed colorism instead of mentioning white characters. There's been much talk that racially ambiguous/light-skinned characters in "Precious" such as Mariah Carey and Paula Patton are presented as good, while dark-skinned characters are presented as dysfunctional and in need of saving. We could argue that the racially ambiguous looking Carey and Patton function as whites in "Precious."

I understand your point, and

I understand your point, and I don't embrace the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" mentality. But, in the case of the lead character, she had to have a lot of help from the people around her. I mean, she was motivated by herself, but she had to have support. I certainly don't think that's a bad message. I actually think it goes against the bootstraps mentality.

And, I think it's pretty offensive to say that Carey and Patton function as whites ... I understand what you mean by it, but I think their characters were very layered. They are both black women, but I think equating them to JUST their skin color to prove a point is wrong.

Films? Books. They were

Films? Books. They were portrayed in *books*. The Color Purple was written by a black women, for women. The Joy Luck Club was also written for women, by a woman. If they're writing from their own experiences or from experiences other people have had, do you expect writers to censor or lie in their writings? What you're asking or saying is that even though they may be portrayals of life, it should be censored or removed because you don't want any negative portrayals of black men. There will always be negative portrayals of black men, women, white men, women, Asian men, women, etc, etc, etc. So what do you want?

"There's been much talk that racially ambiguous/light-skinned characters in "Precious" such as Mariah Carey and Paula Patton are presented as good, while dark-skinned characters are presented as dysfunctional and in need of saving"

So now you're going to say that these actresses should only be allowed to play negative and demeaning characters because of the color of their skin, because people *happen* to wrongly associate being light-skinned with being good. *That's* colorism. And, the whole argument flies out the window with Precious being dark-skinned who is the heroine. Colorism is a symptom of intraracism within the black community, you cannot blame those actresses for being light-skinned when they themselves are victims of racism themselves within their own community.

I see what you're saying, but how can you be so sure that both characters weren't described as mixed ethnicities in the book? Because then your complaint should be with Sapphire, not the casting directors of the movie.

And racially ambiguous? Who's playing the "who's darker than who" pissing contest?

"We could argue that the racially ambiguous looking Carey and Patton function as whites in "Precious.""

Oh fuck that. Those women identify as women of color, and you know that. Don't try to demean them because of their mixed ethnicities. That's exactly what intraracism is. Saying that they're not "black enough" to play a black character on screen.

If you have a problem with the movie, then you have a problem with the book, and therefore you have a problem with Sapphire and her story. I wonder what she would say about this.

Huh?

You're accusing me of having beliefs that I never stated I had. As for Paula Patton and Mariah Carey's skin color, I said the argument could be made (and already has been made throughout the blogosphere) that these characters function as whites. That's because they're playing the "savior roles" normally played by white characters in these types of films, and they're racially ambiguous looking enough that viewers unfamiliar with these actresses (or who don't recognize Carey sans makeup) might view them as non-black. In the book, Paula Patton's character was described as being a dark-skinned black woman with dreadlocks, so the issue lies with the film casting and not with the book. Also, director Lee Daniels has said that he's had issues with colorism so to call his casting into question is fair game in my opinion. It's problematic in a society where dark skin is valued less than light skin to cast dark-skinned characters as in need of rescuing and light-skinned characters as those who rescue them. It's white supremacy being played out along color lines among blacks. I have no issues with Mariah Carey and Paula Patton personally and am not demeaning them by pointing out issues with skin color and representations of skin color in popular culture. Lastly, nowhere did I say that they should be forced to play negative roles because they are lighter-skinned. If anything, the accusations of colorism could be avoided by casting actors who looked the way that Sapphire described them. The character of Precious herself was "color struck." When she met Blue Rain, it was the first time she saw a dark-skinned woman with natural hair as beautiful. In the film, Precious can't have this revelation because Blue Rain looks nothing like the woman described in the book.

Me, too

Frankly, why is it that any time any black woman talks about anything negative that happened in her life, it must be tidied up for the sake of the black male? The saddest part? There are black women willing to attack other black women for the sake of protecting the black male. There are incest victims of all races, for fuck's sake. Anyone remember the 1980s (or early '90s) TV film Something About Amelia? White girl being raped by Daddy? Ring any bells? It also got rave reviews for broaching an important topic. That is the one and only reason I think Precious is an important movie. It gives a voice to those who haven't had one. Sadly, it appears that some--even other women--want to muffle that voice.

It's time to stop being so worried about protecting male feelings and start worrying about protecting other women and girls. Black males aren't the only ones who experience racism, and they don't have to deal with sexism on top of it. The whole thing just nauseates me, especially when it comes down to basically telling women not to talk about sexual violence because it might make men look bad. I've actually read black women attack black rape victims for daring to seek justice for the violence done to them. This is just more of the same. To allow other black women to be violated and attacked, just so white people don't think badly of the black male? To demand that they don't seek safety and justice for that violation, all for the sake of the fragile ego of Reed and his ilk? Is that really the message you support? Is that really what you want to tell young African-American girls?

Oh, and, Sapphire? Is awesome.

True story

Thanks for posting this and sharing the Reed piece. I've thought a lot about this in comparison to The Lovely Bones movie version - for which Peter Jackson has been commended for his choice not to portray the main character's brutal rape in the film (see Entertainment Weekly). So far I haven't read any criticism of that movie to say he should not have censored those scenes because some white girls out there really had those experiences. But that seems exactly what people are saying in defense of the Precious movie, and it bothers me.

Reminds me of the Samuel L. Jackson/Matthew McConaughey scene in A Time To Kill (which I rewatched a bit of this weekend), where McConaughey describes Jackson's character's daughter's brutal murder to the jury. "Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she's white."

No white woman or girl...

has ever been brutally raped in a movie. I completely see your point. Oh, wait...

The Accused
I Spit On Your Grave
The Outlaw Josie Wells
Last House on the Left

There are hundreds more, but I don't have the time (or the memory) to list all of them right now.

Sorry?

How is this relevant to "my point"?

MONIQUE IS ALSO WHITE

Monique is also light skinned (probably more so than Patton if not Carey). So does she represent white people as well? Extend this specious metaphor and next thing you know people will start claiming Obama is a white president. This whole debate reminds me of Thelma and Louise, when a bunch of male critics started screaming about its sexism. Precious makes people uncomfortable. That's not a testament to its racism, but rather a testament to its bravery.