Just last week, I stumbled upon a movie trailer on YouTube that really caught my attention. The independent film, Precious, tells the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones, a Harlem-bred, morbidly obese, pregnant, HIV-positive, illiterate, junior high school student who struggles with low self-esteem. If that isn’t already an earful, Precious’ story is further complicated by the presence of her welfare-collecting mother (played by Mo’Nique), who verbally and physically abuses her on a daily basis. While the film’s overall tone appears to be overwhelmingly bleak, Precious manages to find refuge with her compassionate and empowering schoolteacher.
The film, which is based on the novel “Push” by one-time Harlem schoolteacher and poet, Sapphire is set for release in November and has attracted a lot of positive buzz. It won three Sundance Awards, including the coveted “Grand Jury Prize” and has been entered into the Cannes Film Festival. The all-star supporting cast, which includes Mariah Carey, Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, and Mo’Nique have also received rave reviews. In fact Mo’Nique, also won a Sundance Award for her performance and is already receiving Oscar buzz, which goes along with my theory that comedians make for some of the best drama actors. (Think about it: Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx…) But as for the movie, so far, so good.
I am already excited about this film because I expect that, due to its unique status as a “worthy” independent film backed by two “righteous” and influential black media moguls (Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey), it will attract a diverse audience of both casual moviegoers and film critics. And it’s not often that you find a mixed audience like this watching a black motion picture.
So what will the reaction be? Critics have already said that Precious really pushes the envelope in terms of what an audience can handle. The most popular criticisms of the film I have heard so far have raised questions of its authenticity and respectability. Yesterday, I read from a critic who argued that the movie demonizes the black mother. While I understand her point that the film could contribute to how the public perceives black people, it bothers me that films like Precious get criticized for telling a story that is different from the “respectable” norm. (Norm: Protagonist has a bad life. Protagonist pulls himself by his bootstraps with no help. Protagonist overcomes and lives happily ever after.)
Fortunately, so far this critic’s opinion seems to be the minority. The film already has a reputation for garnering standing ovations. But this is why so many movies about black people play it safe in my opinion. They carry the unfair burden of representing all of their people in a very one-dimensional way. (Tyler Perry does this a lot, actually.) The solution is not to make rules restricting the black films made to have “respectable” or “representative” images, but instead to focus on encouraging more films to be made. This way, we will have a spectrum of images and hopefully also a wider and more accurate discussion about the various ways that blacks are portrayed on screen.