Do Only White People Like "Precious"?

by BILLY GRAY · February 5, 2010

Ishmael Reed wrote in the Times that while white movie critics and the Academy adore the gritty Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, it inspires "widespread revulsion and anger" among the black viewers that make up its ostensible target audience. 

Reed is hardly the first prominent black writer to slam Precious. Renowned New York Press film critic (and perpetual contrarian) Armond White called it a "scandalous" "con job" in his review. The film was also the subject of some inevitable Oscar badmouthing early in the awards season.

Reed quotes and shares this doozy of a sentiment from author Jill Nelson:

“I don’t eat at the table of self-hatred, inferiority or victimization. I haven’t bought into notions of rampant black pathology or embraced the overwrought, dishonest and black-people-hating pseudo-analysis too often passing as post-racial cold hard truths.”

Precious does have its stereotypes. One entire scene is dedicated to the title character stealing a bucket of fried chicken. But it's a bit of a stretch when Reed posits that incest and domestic abuse (two of the movie's prominent themes) are similar methods that pigeonhole and "cast collective shame upon an entire community." He notes that "statistics tell us" that incest is no more common in black families than in white. But I don't really go to the movies for a statistics lecture, and don't extrapolate racial conclusions from them.

Reed's concerns about the Academy's melanin deficiency are valid (he notes that the 43 AMPAS governors are all white, saying the group "in terms of diversity is about 40 years behind Mississippi").  And some entries in the Save the Ghetto genre (Dangerous Minds, The Blind Side) could be brought to the cinderblock-supported table at some undergraduate Film Studies study group as instances of the "merciful slave-master" meme.

But Precious has an almost entirely black cast and was based on a book by a black author about a black girl finding redemption in herself and with the help of a black teacher and social worker. (OK, so Mariah Carey plays the social worker in the movie and no one knows her race; a meta-ish joke mentioning this in the film is one of its few glimpses of humor).

Similar backlash greeted current Oscar contender An Education ("egregiously anti-Semitic" according to David Edelstein) and, going back, The Silence of the Lambs. But just because a movie features incest in one black family does not mean incest is an epidemic in the black community. Or that a slimy Jewish character is meant to defame all Jews. Or that one penis-tucking, Q Lazarus-loving transsexual serial killer is the transsexual paradigm.

Do we have to label every movie featuring an unlikeable minority character as racist?

And as for Reed's argument that racial shaming does not occur in white movies, I offer him He's Just Not That Into You, Nights in Rodanthe and every Matthew McConaughey/Kate Hudson "romantic" "comedy."