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.

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About jennifer williams

Jennifer D. Williams is a writer and professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies. She has published in academic journals and online at Ms.blog, PopMatters, among other sites. Jennifer is currently working on a book that looks at black women's urban literature between the Depression and the civil rights era.

9 responses to “all girls are precious

  1. Thanks for writing this Jen. Your review makes me less terrified to see the movie.It is a fear of being retraumatized that is keeping me away from the film. I feel a bit better about going to see it. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for reading it Sel. And commenting to.

  3. Thanks for this post, Jen (which I came across after a rare visit to Facebook), and especially for the link to Pat Ward Williams' stunning Accused Blowtorch Padlock. Wow. I'm gonna have to find myself a larger version of that and use it next semester in my Viz Rhet/Multimodal Comp grad course.

    You didn't mention Terry Gross's interview with Jeff Daniels, so I thought I would point you to it: http://j.mp/2KGC4B

    I found it fascinating. I'm waiting for the movie to get to Delaware (yes, I'm living in Delaware now, with Wendy, who you met at Lee's wedding). I may not be able to wait, though, because it looks like such an important film.

    Hope all is well.

    See ya!

    Bill

  4. Thanks Bill. I was listening to that interview yesterday and found it really problematic. I think I like Lee Daniels the filmmaker better than Lee Daniels the “cultural critic.” He really needed to clarify some of his statements. He seemed to be reinforcing some outmoded notions about urban pathology.

  5. Jen, you are so right on about the importance of this film. And you say it so well. Thanks!

  6. Hi Jennifer,

    I saw “Precious” and I read so many comments from black women who were saying that they didn't want to have to see that story on the screen and I didn't understand why.

    I went to the film with a women who had faced sexual abuse as a child…and THEN I understood. For some, it's like watching a replay all over again.

    The scene where the father is raping Precious and the mother is watching from the hallway really triggers a lot of questions in the minds of survivors who still wonder “did my mother know and pretend not to know??”

    I can see why that would be painful but those are questions that should be asked!

    There was a scene when Precious walks down the street and a group of boys are just preying on her mentally and physically…with sheer delight on their faces.

    There may be some women who have faced that repeatedly when they were children.

    Many black women have mentioned online that white audiences will think that Precious represents “the black experience” when there are plenty of black girls who never faced verbally abusive and sexual abusive parents and never lived in a home where their parent was discouraging them from getting an education. That aspect of this story is extremely alien to many black women.

    It is an important film and I hope black women will begin speaking about sexual victimization and the impact of it on families. There are many other issues in the film as well, but that is one issue that we just don't speak on very much.

    Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!
    Lisa

  7. Thanks so much Fran and Lisa. Lisa, I COMPLETELY agree with you about the potential retraumatization those scenes can cause. I would love to see women use the film as an opportunity to gather and talk about their experiences with sexual abuse, something that far too many women have experienced in our lifetimes. I hope people who see this will also check out Aishah Shahidah Simmons's No!

  8. This is a brilliant post! I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  9. Thanks Precious. I look forward to reading your work too.

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