precious and the negative/positive image conundrum

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.

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Ann Petry

After participating in a dynamic symposium on “Transnational Feminism and the Black Diaspora,” hosted and conceived by Professor Keisha-Khan Perry of Brown University, I set off for Boston.

And more specifically for the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center to rummage through Ann Petry’s papers. I can’t remember how I came across Ann Petry’s first novel The Street (1946) but I do know that Petry’s vivid portrait of Harlem’s 116th St has had a lasting impact on me, so much so that the novel was the subject of one of my dissertation chapters and is part of my book manuscript as well.

“Author Ann Petry said in Hartford Thursday that the ‘sad and terrible’ thing about her first novel, ‘The Street,’ is that she would have to write the same book 20 years later about any ghetto in the United States.”

–“‘The Street’ Still Unchanged,” Hartford Courant, March 7, 1969.

Could Petry have written the same novel today? Her memorable protagonist Lutie Johnson, recently divorced, struggles to maintain her dignity and provide a decent environment to raise her son Bub in. I can’t help but think of Sapphire’s novel Push in the same vein as Petry’s work. More than 50 years later, The Street would NOT be the same book, it would be far more stark.

Pharmacy grad, reporter, writer of novels, short stories, and juvenile literature, Petry remained committed to women’s rights, social justice, and education until her death in 1997. In the last box of her correspondences, dated in the 60s and 70s, I was struck by the letters she’d write to editors of The Times and of other organs in protest of the derogatory images of black people that limned their pages. She had also sent her condolences to President and Mrs. Johnson after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, I didn’t get a clear picture of Petry during the civil rights era.

I have read elsewhere that she was active in the socialist movement. There were no documents that detailed her involvement. I’d be interested to know more about that as well as her personal life. I hate to be the researcher/voyeur but the lack of information about her marriage and intimate life was noticeable. I suspect that the estate might have respected Petry’s penchant for privacy and elected not to include certain details of her life.

Another coup for me was uncovering Ann Petry, the writer. She had pages and pages of character sketches, outlines, and other details about her novels-in-progress. She took her writing very seriously and aimed to craft work that was poetic, well structured, and socially meaningful (without being sociological).

Above all, she seemed committed to exploring the paradoxes of humanity, especially in regards to race and sex. In edition to The Street, The Narrows, A Country Place, and her short fiction compiled as Miss Muriel and Other Stories explore the complexities of class, race, sex, love, and human relations in complex and sometimes unprecedented ways.

the color precious

My friend Salamishah Tillet compares the commercial successes of Daniels’ Precious and Spielberg’s The Color Purple here. Tillet examines further why the protests that welcomed Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel have not resurfaced around Daniels’ portrayal of Sapphire’s Push.

all girls are precious

The theater was almost filled to capacity. We looked for two side-by-side seats and found them near the front, closer to the screen than I like to be. We also had the misfortune of being seated behind a heckler. A young guy who commented loudly throughout the film, lobbed insults at the large woman on the screen, and laughed at inappropriate moments, like when Precious (played by Gabbie Sidibe) had to fend off her abusive mother Mary (Mo’Nique).
Can you be BLACK and look at this … again, and again, and again? Can you be a black (dark-skinned) (large-sized) woman and watch this or do you see too much of your personal pain in Precious’ face to sit still? Can you be an abused woman or man of any color and not turn-away or cover your eyes when scenes of simulated incest are projected onto the screen?

Executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry likely recalled their own experiences of sexual abuse when they decided to support the film financially. Perry was even compelled to share his personal history of abuse on his website in an e-mail message to his fans. While I am not a fan, I thought Perry’s message was courageous and suspected Precious was a powerful film that could touch others in the way that it had Perry and Winfrey. Because I know the power of visual images, I was also nervous that the display of such graphic material (the novel Push is even more graphic/visual than the film in many ways) would further exploit black pain, poverty, sexual trauma … blackness itself.

Lynn Hirschberg’s interview with Lee Daniels heightened my anxiety. The interview framed Daniels as a brilliant hustler, a man with aesthetic vision coupled with dreams of dollar signs. He had produced Monster’s Ball, a film I found both painful and problematic on a number of levels. What would he do with Push?

Daniels’ Precious does amazing things with Sapphire’s Push actually. Sapphire’s words painted scenes too painful to bear witness to and Daniels knows that. But he also knows how to use visuality to draw viewers uncomfortably close to a traumatic moment and allow them to feel that discomfort and/or to empathize with it. He does not alleviate that pain but he also doesn’t make a spectacle out of it. He incorporates the humorous elements of the story, but he doesn’t use humor to deflect from the pain. He manages to end the film with hope rather than despair but not in a romanticized way.

In other words, I think Daniels does a remarkable job with difficult material. I’ll see the film again after the opening weeks have passed and the crowds die down. I hope the commercial success of the film will open even more doors for black filmmakers who want to address complex subjects. But more importantly, I hope the film can further dialogue about the lives of black girls. The entire time I was watching the film, I kept thinking how few portrayals of black girls and women are available, traumatic or otherwise. Stanley Crouch, a man with whom I seldom agree, wrote a poignant piece in The Root that captures the plight of black actresses.

While watching Precious I also thought of better known figures in urban narratives, like Bigger Thomas or even Biggie Smalls, and how a character like Precious dovetails with these figures but also how her story diverges from theirs when it comes to sexual trauma. In many ways Push and Precious furthers the exploration of sexualized racism in urban environs that Ann Petry began in her 1946 novel The Street. Like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Precious also reminds us that black girls need saving as much as black boys do. Will the “bigness” of the film galvanize a movement to end black girl pain? If the laughter of that heckler or the fallout of the Dom Imus scandal or even the bizarre events surrounding the attack and rape of Megan Williams are any indication, there is a lot more work to be done before everyone recognizes all black girls are precious.