I saw Precious Wednesday (it’s accomplished, bound for Oscar greatness), but I’ll hold off on film criticism and instead talk about what I think the film means, and what I think it does for black cinema, a field I’m still learning about, so I would love comments and suggestions.
My thrust is simple: Precious is another shot in the fight against representation. Yes, “representation.” That big word that still refuses to go away in discussions about culture. Representation is what happens when media — television, film, web, books, music — come to take on cultural meaning. Images come to “represent” various things in society: gender, race, professional positions, etc. Courtney Cox comes to represent older women who desire younger men (Cougar Town); Steve Carell represents the small town businessman (The Office). Everything you see on a screen is a representation. Simple.
What’s wrong? Well, nothing can really represent one thing if it isn’t exactly that thing. Simple again. Not even our politicians can, in an intellectual sense, represent us. They can represent a majority or a plurality, but not all of us. Same with cultural representations. They are always imperfect. Some representations get a pass because they’re “positive,” but getting a complete pass is rare. (It’s still a minority of people who don’t like The Cosby Show, at least until recently. However much it skewed representations of black people, or, as Herman Gray argues in Watching Race, supports a conservative discourse, it’s still a “nice” representation. Most people give it a pass, but not everybody).
I’m getting to Precious, bare with me.
Creators hate representation. Why? Because every time theyconfront a viewer or reader, they fear hearing “I don’t like X character, because I’m not that kind of Y person.” Or, “I hate the way you portray New York, that’s not the New York I live in.” Creators inevitably say something to the effect of their show or film or book isn’t about all X, Y or Z, it’s just one story. It’s really the only defense, certainly most intelligible.
This is an intractable debate. Critics of the “it’s just one story” defense say that’s a cop-out. Potentially harmful institutions can use individual cases (representations) to demonize an entire class of people, and cultural objects like film and TV are powerful and need to be responsible. Creators say this is a heavy burden; media are not reality and cannot reflect reality. The debate gets more complicated when you look at broader trends in representations: the most prominent example is the tendency for most TV shows to depict middle class life. Sure, any one creator can say that his or her show is just one story, but, then again, how come all those individual stories are the same? It gets dicey.
Enter Precious (finally!). Precious is ballsy salvo in the representation debate. Anyone interested in policing representations can, without seeing the movie, tear it down easily. The protagonists of Precious (played marvelously by Gabourey Sidibe and miraculously by Mo’Nique) are victims, perpetrators and classic manifestations of rape, molestation, child abuse, poverty, sloth, crime, poor nutrition and poor education. It is by far the scariest movie for anyone invested in having only good representations of black people (The Cosby Show!) in film and TV.
It isn’t the first. My mind goes back to blaxploitation — Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is shocking, even today — and continues through the urban crime films of the 1990s and up to The Chappelle Show (heck, it even includes past Oscar standouts The Color Purple and Monster’s Ball). A consistent group of artists have chosen throughout the years to portray even the most grotesque, worrying and strange representations of black people as part of a project to disturb the presumed “innocence” of black people. This is not just on TV and in film. Robert Reid-Pharr discusses how literary giants James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison “…attempt to break open the trap of innocence and primitivism that they believe too heavily burdens the Black American” in his great book Once You Go Black. Recent scholarship has even suggested that the defining feature of black art is in fact this sense of deviance and representational disobedience (I’m thinking of Richard Iton’s In Search of the Black Fantastic and Fred Moten’s In the Break, though I’m way over-simplifying and distilling their arguments for convenience; I imagine Iton, Moten and Reid-Pharr would have plenty of vibrant disagreements. Thanks Mark Anthony Neal for introducing me to this literature!).
Still, Precious sticks out in my mind because of the historical moment we’re in (yes I mean “Obama,” Lord help me), because of its support from traditional backers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, and because of its tremendous buzz despite its extreme content. (PS – anyone familiar with the work of Lee Daniels shouldn’t be surprised he made this movie). At first, it is easy to dismiss the Perry/Winfrey/buzz connections using the “personal” defense. The film is deeply personal to Winfrey and Perry, and personal stories — told through one, singular individual — are precisely how award-winning films and television shows are made. (It’s why The Sopranos won more awards than The Wire).
How can we reconcile Precious‘ heightening of black stereotypes — really, black demons (poverty, obesity, dysfunction) — with an Obama/Oprah moment? Why isn’t there any outrage over this crazy representation?
In order to answer this question, a quick detour: I’ve long been saying that Obama’s presidential victory was historic for reasons less popular than simply he’s our first black president. This is of course true (yay!). But some would say that even as Obama becomes president, black people are still doing worse than ever — surely by some measures, not so much by others, it’s a complex picture. So what did Obama, really, do, since he obviously didn’t bring racial equality overnight? Obama, I would argue, won a battle against representation, and won it on numerous fronts. He fended off the conservative representation of him (evil Muslim Socialist), and he also fended off left skepticism, that America could never purchase someone different, that the majority votes for itself — something exactly like itself, because, of course, Obama is still middle/upper middle class, Christian, etc. — and necessarily caricatures the other. Obama really didn’t need to win this battle: Oprah, Will Smith, Sidney Poitier, The Cosby Show and its spin-offs had already proved this point. But a president is something different; it’s a serious investment, not entertainment.
What’s remarkable about Precious is it similarly diffuses the representation debate. One friend of mine was very skeptical going in, concerned about how this kind of story could be represented responsibly. At the end of the movie, she had no complaints (that I know of). I wasn’t too surprised. Precious‘ focus on the psychology and experiences of its characters fills out the gap and makes it a “human” story. But this doesn’t mean it neglects institutions, how society treats those who are different and the constraints made on American progress. Framed properly, narratives can speak for themselves, for society and for communities in progressive ways. This is as much a black story as one about Precious, and yet is not a story about all black people (or poor people, or obese people, or people on welfare, etc.).
The film really accomplishes all of this intellectual work in one triumphant scene (stop reading if you want to see it fresh). Mo’Nique, mother of Precious and the film’s villain (the representation of, if not all that’s “wrong” with the black community, at least most of the “black problem”), delivers a speech about why she has sinned that is so powerful in its prose, so moving in its delivery, it completely obliterates the trappings of stereotype. At once, her story becomes as singular as the story of Obama but without losing the power of what she represents, both the sin and the redemption. It doesn’t resolve the problems, in the way TV drama soliloquies do, but it does lay bare the burdens of a life hard lived. The representation is still there: she is a mother who has failed her family as much as the system has failed her. The problem of representation, that her struggle stands for all black women or that catharsis can cure black ills, is no longer at issue. The emotional expreience is key. Without emotions, characters are soulless (in satire and comedy, this is often okay); without souls, they are problematic representations, they cannot speak for themselves or culture that created them.
With Precious, I hope the question of what can be represented has finally been put to rest, if it hadn’t been already. Perhaps we can stop assailing representations as mere representations and arrive at a place where images can be judged by what they are and have accomplished, not for what they lack.
Who am I kidding? Arguing over representations is arguing over culture; and we’ll never stop doing that. But at least let’s start those debates by considering the complete picture, all the nuances, not just the parts we don’t like.