The New York Times has a great little article out on the debate over Precious, over whether or not it’s a responsible representation of black people. Felicia Lee asked for my opinion, based on an essay written for this blog:
Aymar Jean Christian, a doctoral student in communications at the University of Pennsylvania said he found “Precious” brilliant and added, “In some ways, the debate’s not about the movie, it’s about the idea of the movie,” and black concerns about representation.
On his blog, Televisual (at blog.ajchristian.org), he wrote that Precious was “by far the scariest movie for anyone invested in having only ‘good’ representations of black people (‘The Cosby Show!’) in film and TV.”
The article explores the film’s historical predecessors, markedly The Color Purple, and its televisual antithesis, The Cosby Show. Professor and cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal (under whom I researched YouTube, black vloggers and identity) lays out the connection:
A father repeatedly rapes and impregnates his daughter in “The Color Purple” (as does the father in “Precious”), enraging some critics (mostly men) who asserted that the book and the film treated black men harshly. “Precious” has avoided that kind of backlash, but “people are suspicious of narratives that don’t put us in the best light,” Professor Neal said. The roots of that suspicion, he said, can be found in a long history of negative images in popular culture that helped keep black people in their place by reinforcing the notion of their inferiority.
Most black people, the article implies, aren’t wholesale against the movie — except Armond White — but some are still wary of it, especially scholars, because of a long history if demeaning images of black people (minstrelsy, early radio, film and television) and the persistent threat of stereotype.
This strikes me as true. The enormous popularity of the film, especially among black people, signals there’s a demand for these kinds of stories. I’m not sure if it’s about a kind of “authentic” black narrative, or if it stems from a larger narrative of struggle, but whatever the case, the story has resonated in print (Sapphire’s novel Push) and now in film. This is meaningful, and in my opinion not particularly damaging.