I am my mother’s daughter and my mother is the daughter of my grandmother. And both their stories and silences speak through me.
I begin with this mantra because spiritually and mentally I desperately need to understand why tears stained and wrinkled my cheeks as I watched the movie Precious. Yes, I am a Cancer and have been known to wear my heart on my sleeve, but there was something so violent and painful about how Lee Daniels portrayed Precious’ mother that tears could only convey my ill ease and anger. Mind you, there are many critiques I could write about the movie. However, I think summer’s Lost in Translation: A Response to Precious gets at the root of why so many people like myself wanted to storm out of the theater babbling among many things, “I can’t stand Tyler Perry’s @s$ who makes millions off of black women being damaged.” So, if you want to read a good critique, please read summer’s Lost in Translation. I guess I should also say that I have not read Push by Sapphire and all my comments are in response to the movie, Precious.
So, I begin by asking the question, what if the movie Precious was not told from the point of view of Precious, but told from the point of view of Mary. I know many of you are scratching your heads asking, “Who’s Mary?” Well, Mary is Precious’ mother. I think it is important that we know the name of the woman who is “solely” responsible for making her daughter overweight, infecting her daughter with HIV, allowing her father to rape her, and forcing her to quit school to get welfare. Given all of this, I think it is important to know the name of Precious’ mother, Mary.
Yes, I know that the purpose of the movie was to tell the daughter’s story. But, as I watched Mary silence, physically abuse, and sexually sodomize her daughter, all I could think about as tears flowed was Mary’s story and how she became who she was. What were the political, social, cultural, and economic forces “intersecting” to shape how she saw her daughter and how she saw herself? Mary is not one dimensional in the sense of simply being organically evil. But, Lee Daniels—as he also did in Monster’s Ball—did a good, downright extraordinary job of painting her as such, ignoring the many structural and cultural forces at play during the 70s and 80s that made the image of the black welfare queen palatable and punitive.
Of course, at the end of the movie you get a small glimpse of Mary’s humanity. It is seen in the scene where she is talking with the social worker. What I read between the lines from Mary’s potential red gumball moment was that she was stuck between a man and a baby girl, figuratively and literally. And she had to make a choice. For many women, this dilemma is not unique especially since we live in a patriarchal heterosexist society that privileges the lives, experiences, and beliefs of men and women who abide by those experiences and beliefs. And of course, once we add into the mix issues of race and class, the choices women make are not always June Cleaver and Claire Huxtable types of choices. And this is not to say that June Cleaver and Claire Huxtable choices are the right choices either. All that I am saying is that I want people to see Mary, a black mother, in context and not as some new age Terminator seeking only to annihilate her black daughter, Precious.
But, the movie does not allow you to emphasize with Mary. As summer points out Mary is always cloaked in darkness and even her mother shakes her head in righteous disapproval. So, everybody in the theater cheers with unadulterated glee to see Precious kick Mary’s @s$. They are delighted by the blood that drips from Mary’s face. Outwardly and inwardly they feel completely justified in their hate and loathing of Mary. And let’s be honest, in many ways Lee Daniels did not have to go to the extremes of making the audience hate Mary. They would have hated or at least seen her as deviant regardless because she was single black mother on welfare. So, it was a “walk in the park” for Lee Daniels. All he did was to activate the many negative images we have of black mothers to legitimize our hate of Mary.
Perhaps, my obsession with wanting to know Mary’s story is based on me wanting to know Sandra’s story which informs my story because I am Sandra’s daughter. We grew up on welfare. My father beat my mother senseless. My mother dated many different men including my sister’s father who was a drug dealer. We had spotty health insurance . . . just went to the dentist last week after a 12 year hiatus (no cavities!!!). We lived with our grandmother who shook her head in righteous dissent of my mother’s “lifestyle.” And yet, Sandra, my black mother, loved us her three black daughters and told us, “It’s my job to raise three independent girls. Have your own stuff and don’t depend on any man to help you. You see what is wrong with children now-a-days is that their parents spoil them. Hey, I told y’all, y’all have to get the hell away from me and do for yourselves and look y’all have done that and that makes me proud.” You see, it’s possible for black mothers to love their daughters even in conditions that society labels as the most damned conditions or when they do not always choose the choices of June Cleaver and Claire Huxtable.
And I now know and knew somewhat as a child why my mother acted the ways she did. She was told as all little black girls are told: “You’re beautiful light skinned black girl and because you’re beautiful people will buy you things for you, Sandy.” She was told as all women are told: “Prince Charming will come and take care of you.” She was told as all working class people of color are told: “Just get a diploma and you will find a good job.” She was told as all women are told: “Don’t have too many women around they’re take your man and some of them are gay.” She was told as all abused women are told : “I hit you but I love you.” She was told many things that hid and cloaked intersecting systems of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and capitalism. Is this to say that Sandra and Mary are angels? No, but it is to say that we have to see the context of what shapes our mothers’ behaviors. Does it hurt less? No. But does it help the healing process? Yes. And this is what the film, Precious, lacked for Mary—context, healing, and redemption. Does redemption mean that Mary and Precious sing Kummbaya at the end of the film? No, but it does mean that Mary is not seen as the originator of evil. You see, it’s this constant negative portrayal of black mothers in the media that makes my heart search for Mary’s story because there is a purpose albeit a political project behind casting black mothers as deviant and beyond redemption.
All that I can say as I wipe away the many tears that stain my brown cheek is that I saw the movie Precious, but what about her mother, Mary.