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.


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, 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.

5 responses to “precious and the negative/positive image conundrum

  1. Thanks for bringing Michele Wallace's wisdom back into this. I wish I could see this the movie myself and form an opinion! I don't think it is making it here to Berlin, although perhaps that is for the best. Considering how limited representations are in the US, they are even more limited over here! Something I ponder: the director of Precious is an out black gay man, I wonder if this should be part of the conversation? I hesitate to rely on any sort of progress narrative, ever. Really I do. But I am very interested in actually existing queer creativity, if that's not too clunky a term. How do we think about the representational opportunities that are now opening up, and the people who are taking them, and what they are doing with them, in a manner that doesn't assume that all the old rules still apply, and will always apply?

  2. Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you for writing this comment. I haven't seen “Precious” yet, and I haven't been drawn to see it, despite all the hype. But I remember reading “Push” very well, not just because of the book but because of how I came to read it. One morning Ana Sisnett called me — and it was EARLY in the morning. I don't remember how early, but it was back when I had babies. Ana called to say, you MUST read this book, and YOU must read this book. And she was right. The reason she wanted me to read this book was because at the time I taught at the Travis County Jail, and (as should be obvious) there are no people in the jail who aren't poor, and very few who haven't been through a lot of stuff no one should have to endure. I did learn a lot from the book…… But the idea of going to see this pain and struggle on a big screen bugs me. It feels exploitative and that, I guess, is about the visual or maybe the visceral. I feel, but won't even try to defend, something different about reading and watching on the big screen. The latter feels like an invasion of privacy.

  3. Tavia – I've wondered too if Daniels' experience and identity as a queer black man shaped how he handled Sapphire's material. He really was attentive to the possibility that the subject matter could be exploitative when translated into the visual. Which is what you're saying right Virginia? I was worried about seeing that story on screen (even though and maybe BECAUSE the text is so visual). I'm still not sure why Daniels wanted to make it into a film and am still uncomfortable about that.

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  5. According to Daniels, the central character, Precious, reminds him of a childhood friend whose abuse he witnessed. For him, creating this movie was a way to work out the traumatization that he still carries with him to this day.

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