In response to the six Academy Award nominations received last week by Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, the New York Times editorial page decided to honor the movie by publishing… another blistering attack on it. In theory, that’s okay with me: Precious, in the very spotlight of its success, has been a movie of genuine controversy, and there’s no reason that it can’t continue to bear criticism along with praise. But this particular piece of invective, by Ishmael Reed, the venerable poet, novelist, and essayist (he was born in 1938), was notably revealing in the recklessness of its venom. What it demonstrates is that the taking down of Precious has become a holier-than-thou form of racial-sociological bloodsport.
I haven’t responded to the previous moralistic debunkings of Precious — and there have been a number of them — because I figured that the most passionate argument I could make against them is everything I’d already said in my original review. But just briefly: The best way, the only way, to counter the insidious charge that the movie traffics in clichés and stereotypes of African-American poverty and victimization is to say that the difference between a cliché and a portrayal of genuine life will always come down to the specificity of what you’re seeing.
The insult of a cliché — as drama, or as social observation — is that it’s a lazy abstraction elevated to a plane of “truth.” Whereas what I loved about Precious is that it presents its heroine, from minute one, as a lacerating and tragic and spiritually messy and complicated individual; that’s true of the forces that bear down upon her as well. Gabourey Sidibe’s impacted, mostly hushed, but quietly emotional performance allows you to respond to the moment-by-moment experience of Precious’ internal strife, and the nearly universal praise for Mo’Nique’s performance is a recognition that Precious’ mother is never just a “type.” She’s a force, as profoundly etched in the misery of her past and the love-hate rage of her present as the clinging monster-mother from The Glass Menagerie.
What I most want to address, however, are several points in Reed’s essay that strike me as almost perversely wrongheaded. After making the specious claim that Precious is a movie largely reviled by African-Americans (he provides no evidence — but the film’s box-office demographics do not bear out that assertion), he states: “In guilt-free bits of merchandise like Precious, white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans.”
I think he’s talking about a different movie. Over the decades, Hollywood has made dozens of facile dramas, many of them set at inner-city schools, in which African-Americans are lifted up through the efforts of saintly white characters. But Precious isn’t one of those films. There are virtually no white characters in the movie; the stray ones who appear don’t carry any noble, righteous weight. Yet having established the patronizing genre/category he thinks that Precious belongs in, Reed writes that white critics “maintain that the movie is worthwhile because, through the efforts of a teacher, this girl begins her first awkward efforts at writing.” He then adds, “Redemption through learning the ways of white culture is an old Hollywood theme.”
It seriously made my jaw drop to see a scholar of Ishmael Reed’s stature claim, in the middle of the New York Times, that an abused, illiterate black teenager struggling to learn how to read and write is an instance of someone “learning the ways of white culture.” Since when did literacy become a conspiracy of “white” indoctrinization? It’s enough to make you wonder if the victimization stereotypes that Reed sees in this movie are really in the eye of the beholder.