Past Event

A Precious Fight for True Representation

Join us as special guest Tracye Matthews, Associate Director of The Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago helps us kick-off the discussion at Ron’s!

The film Precious (based on the novel Push by Sapphire) tells the story of an overweight, illiterate, young African-American woman who is sexually and verbally abused by her parents, stricken with HIV-AIDS, and battling a system that has ultimately failed her in multiple ways. Directed by African-American filmmaker Lee Daniels, Precious was released nationwide on November 6 and has become the thing of independent film legend.

Daniels, who also produced Monsters Ball and The Woodsman, screened Precious to much acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, catching the attention of major backers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. Just as the audience at Sundance left screenings breathless and engaged, the national release has caught the attention of a wider audience and received both significant praise and harsh criticism.

In the film, Precious deals with a great deal of adversity; her family relies on welfare, she is repeatedly raped and impregnated by her father and beaten by her mother. To escape this cruelty, she fantasizes about being white and thin and having a light-skinned boyfriend.

Juell Stewart of writes, “The racialized image of the ‘welfare queen’ is a cultural remnant from the 80s that persists to this day. My problem with Mary’s character (Precious’ mother) isn’t so much that she does so many horrible things—it’s that she’s portrayed as doing them without any reason whatsoever.”

Armond White, the chief film critic of The New York Press wrote in his review, “Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious.” He adds, “Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show.”

The debate over representation of African-Americans in popular culture is long-standing. Characters ranging from The Cosby’s Show’s Claire Huxtable to The Color Purple’s Celie and Mr. have been debated and analyzed. While the argument over what are acceptable representations of African-Americans on the big screen remain, some think multiple stories complete with the sour and the sweet must be told.  

To this end, not everyone believes Precious is insensitive, rather stating that it deftly tells the inspiring tale of a young woman battling demons. They resent critics who wish to offer only hyper positive one-dimensional characters. In response to White’s critique of the film, Latoya Peterson, the editor of said, “His review buys into the narrative that there can only be one acceptable presentation of black life. He’s flattening the black experience, and in that way, he denies our humanity.”

An anonymous commenter on The New York Times online wrote, “This movie gives voice to people we want to pretend don’t exist. Not only does she exist, she is strong and hopeful and she knows (more than those around her) how much she deserves to make her mark.”

Like many, Malkia Cyril, Executive Director of The Center for Media Justice had mixed feelings about the film (and the book it’s based on). She ponders the weight of representation and concludes her piece “Precious, my Precious: Black Female Citizenship, Complexity, and the Politics of Unrelenting Survival,” by writing, “We are our mothers’ daughters, more than the sum of empire’s history, and our mothers are no worse than human. That is the story that needs to be told. Sapphire (author of Push) is one of hundreds of writers who pull back the veil on black female citizenship to reveal the abject b*******of this democracy’s contract, place humanity back into the narrative, and open the door for complexity.”

How does film impact and shape the public psyche? How do we begin a conversation about familial abuse that is complicated by systematic abuse? Is narrative film the best way to reveal the contradictions that envelope the lives of those oppressed? Does any mode of popular culture leave room for the complexities that shape human life? When a white character appears on the screen, does it carry the same representative weight as when a character of color is portrayed?

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