More cultural critics weigh in on Precious in Felicia Lee’s recent piece in the Times. Lee’s article sets up a dichotomy in which Precious is either perceived by viewers as “a reinforcement of noxious stereotypes” (negative) or “a realistic and therapeutic portrayal of a black family in America” (positive). This oppositional framework brought to mind Michele Wallace’s trenchant critique of negative/positive images as a way of framing black cultural criticism in her Introduction to Invisibility Blues. As evidenced by the responses in Lee’s article, this dichotomy is not the most productive or critical way to evaluate Daniel’s film, or Sapphire’s novel, or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for that matter. Wallace’s suggestion that we approach black mass and popular culture from the “perspectives of production and audience reception” instead seems instructive (3). Or as my friend and colleague Professor Lynn Makau puts it:
“Of COURSE [Precious] is earning Oscar buzz–Precious and her wholly fucked up life = an image mainstream audiences can get behind. And ooo, isn’t Mariah brave to look so unglamorous, and who is that well-pressed hottie playing the sympathetic teacher and do we ever get to hear why she is so easy on the eyes and Precious, by paradoxical definition, is not?”
Wallace challenges us further to think about who produces black and mainstream mass and popular culture and for what audiences. The strong responses to Precious are in part a reflection of how few images of blackness are on the screen. With such a dearth of images, audiences–of various backgrounds–tend to presume that what they see are “authentic” portrayals of black life rather than just one cultural expression amidst an array of multifaceted perspectives.