Sunday, November 29, 2009

7294: Precious Polarization.

From The Chicago Tribune…

‘Precious’ divides among black viewers

By Erin Aubry Kaplan
Special to Tribune Newspapers

Long before it opened, “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” had racked up the plaudits for its groundbreaking depiction of the inner life of an overweight, ghetto-dwelling black teenage girl. But since the film’s release, a story-outside-the-story has developed that’s equally fresh and complicated: black people’s reaction to the movie and what it means.

Verdicts about high-pitched movies from black viewers and public figures are usually swift and decisive—“Do the Right Thing,” “The Color Purple” and the recent Robert Downey Jr. vehicle “Tropic Thunder” come to mind. But that hasn’t happened this time. That’s partly because the embrace of “Precious” by the white film establishment has been a bit disorienting for black folk, even off-putting. But it’s also because the tough stuff in “Precious,” regardless of whether you like the movie, is striking chords of recognition for many black people that are making them not angry or enthusiastic but uncertain. That’s new territory.

The many issues raised in the course of this one story—class tensions, self-image, racial progress, how Hollywood bears on all of the above—have hit black viewers squarely in the gut, rendering the usual arguments about stereotypes inadequate.

Not everybody is buying into the nuance. The unrelenting inner-city misery that frames “Precious,” including a foul-mouthed welfare mother and an absentee father, has raised plenty of alarms among blacks, notably film critic Armond White. In his review for the New York Press, the famously curmudgeonly White excoriated “Precious” for being an “orgy of prurience,” “a Klansman’s fantasy,” racist propaganda cast from the infamous mold of “Birth of a Nation.” For White, “Precious” is bad art because it is a bad representation, a reminder that for black people, art and politics are inseparable.

“We just don’t want to see black pathology onscreen,” says T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, a professor of critical race studies and hip-hop at Vanderbilt University. “There’s clearly a segment of us that worries about what white people think.”

That worry, she says, is usually about representations of the black poor, a group that’s long been an anathema to whites—and to some blacks as well.

Richard Yarborough, an associate professor of English and African-American Studies at UCLA, says the movie can be difficult to watch because, “The abject degradation of black people in ‘Precious’ is as close as you can get to a modern film that may be similar to a film about slavery.” He points out that slave-era films like “Beloved” and “ Amistad” didn’t do well at the box office, and those were mainstream movies with big budgets and established directors. Those movies also presented widespread black exploitation and oppression as phenomena of the past.

“If people aren’t going to see slavery in a historical context, why would they go see a movie about slavery in a modern context?” Yarborough says. Still, “Precious” grossed an impressive $11 million on 629 screens last weekend.

But an enduring truth about the movie business is that even a widely acclaimed black movie made by blacks doesn’t guarantee that another one will be made.

“What Spike Lee was doing in the ‘80s was more challenging and visionary” than “Precious,” says Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “He’s still working. … But nobody talks about Spike anymore. With features, it’s about the money vehicles now, like what Tyler Perry is doing. The days of the small ‘impact’ film are over.”

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