I saw the movie Precious, but what about her mother, Mary?

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.

Lost in Translation: A Response to 'Precious'

Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry said Precious was awesome and that everyone should go see it. Since I am the most obedient of Negroes, I saw it last Friday. If Flavor Flav is the world’s greatest hype man, this duo is officially the world’s greatest hype machine. I found Precious slightly underwhelming, uninspiring, and lacking much of what makes the novel, Push by Sapphire, so powerful. Sorry, Ms. Winfrey. I had no “A-ha!” moment.

My Reality of The Frankie and Neffe Show

Like many loyal fans of Keyshia Cole’s show, The Way It Is, I watched the premiere of Frankie and Neffe with bated breath hoping to see black reality drama at its finest. Of course, when people learn of my guilty pleasure many people are downright appalled that I, black feminist girl advocate Fallon, would want to watch these shows because of how they pathologize black mothers as absent, drug addicted, selfish, sexually promiscuous, and at the end of the day simply irresponsible. And my response is I watch these shows because in many ways Frankie and Neffe remind me more of my mother and sister than Claire Huxtable and Denise or Claire Huxtable and Rudy or Claire Huxtable and Vanessa. Furthermore, where else on television am I able to see a black mother and daughter tear into each other driven by their love for each other. Yes, sometime their love is explosive, like when Neffe is ready to fight Frankie’s new lover because he mistreats her and sometimes it is downright toxic like when Frankie becomes jealous and angry at the other women who have mothered Neffe and Keyshia because she was strung out on drugs for 20 years.

Of course, this is not to say that Frankie and Neffe are “perfect” models for talking about black mother-daughter relationships. But it is to say that their story is important even if it reifies dominant notions of black mothers because at the end of the day it’s my story. Unlike Frankie, my mother did not leave us for long periods of time to get high. But, she did spend a considerable amount of time psychologically not present and at times physically absent from us because she like the wife in the Selkie (Seal) Myth was never meant to live on land and wed. You see the Selkie is a mythical creature who lives in the sea. However, sometimes the Selkie would shed its seal skin to walk on land as a woman. Well, one day as she walked on the beach a fisherman stole her seal skin making her forget who she was and where she lived. So, to make a long story short she married the fisherman and had several children, it was not until she accidentally found her seal skin that she remembered who she was and where she belonged. I say all of this to say that my mother was created to swim in the sea. However, she like many women was tricked by the belief that one could live happily ever after on land by simply being a good black mother and a good black wife. Yes, living away from your home (i.e. the sea), your center, and your purpose could drive any woman crazy even the beloved and iconic Claire Huxtable.

So, Frankie and my mother are not that dissimilar meaning they are the causalities of an unjust system that privileges whiteness, wealth, maleness, and heterosexuality forcing them and their daughters into a type of land locked madness a madness that shapes how they love and struggle with each other. Ya know, I think Alice Walker understood this idea of land locked madness when she wrote the essay In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. She states that our mothers were “driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release. They were creators who lived lives of spiritual waste, because they were so rich in spirituality—which is the basis of art—that the strain of enduring their unused and unwanted talent drove them insane.” And, by default shaped how they mothered their daughters. I say all of this not to render black mothers without agency as if systems of oppression are just acting upon them because there is always an element of choice.

But, I mention these systems—racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity—to shed light on why Frankie and my mother, Sandy, have trouble understanding why their daughters are angry with them and also angry with themselves. It hurts Neffe to see her mother, Frankie, used by men and it doubly hurts my older sister and me to see our mother at the mercy of some man because she needs his help financially. But the hurt goes both ways because our mothers are deeply wounded when we are closer to other women who have stepped into our lives to mother us when they were seeking short-lived freedoms to compensate for the soul enriching freedom that was stolen away when they took off or was forced to take off their Seal Skins to walk on man’s land.

At this point, many of you are thinking that this reality is only true for a certain class of black women. But, it’s also evident in Alice Walker’s and Rebecca Walker’s mother-daughter relationship. All one has to do is read Rebecca Walker’s Baby Love and see how even a mother’s adamant critique and rebel against patriarchy (i.e. resisting being land-locked) can also create difficulties when relating and loving her daughter. In many ways, this shows how pervasive and enduring patriarchy is that even a mother’s resistance of it can still create pain for both parties.

All in all, there are few shows on television now where I can see black mothers and daughters dealing with the difficulties of being in relationship with each other. It is the intensity of Neffe’s love for her mother that sears my heart. It is Frankie’s wavering desire for her daughters’ acceptance and forgiveness that makes me think of my mother. As much as I want to celebrate the happiness of our mother and daughter relationships I have to be conscientious of the hurt and pain that comes from living in a society that forces our mothers  to live their lives metaphorically on land when they are destined to swim in the sea.