Saturday 25th March 2017,
Televisual

New York Times, Myself on “Precious”

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.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

6 Comments

  1. Media maven November 21, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    You stated: “by far the scariest movie for anyone invested in having only ‘good’ representations of black people (‘The Cosby Show!’) in film and TV.”

    Notable that you had to reach back 20 years for a relevant comparison of ‘good’ representations. Perhaps due to the fact that there is nothing since or current for your to pick.

    I’m sick to death of seeing only this layer of black ‘family’ life. This does not take away from the acting of all involved. It’s so obvious, it’s a societal thing and a hollywood indictment.

  2. Aymar Jean Christian November 21, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Thanks for your comment! I actually think there are plenty of recent examples. Indeed most of the black people on broadcast television today are “good” (Grey’s, Private Practice, even the Cleveland Show and Everybody Hates Chris). Cable is a mixed bag. In film, we just don’t see much color except Tyler Perry — and Will Smith, Denzel, etc. — and I’m agnostic on how good those representations are. I think “Precious” is something we haven’t seen in awhile, at least something that’s done with a concern for artistry.

  3. Lisa November 22, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    I am a middle aged white female who’s childhood story is remarkably c close to the one Precious depicts. My father and grandfather raped me. I grew up in poverty. The only difference is that my mother committed suicide rather than continue to abuse me. I guarantee that there are many others like me who see Precious in themselves and not in terms of black or white.

  4. madison moore November 22, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    I really like Lisa’s comment. These are issues that span outside of race or blackness. and i really want to see this movie, but honestly, as a black dude i’m a little scared to see it…it scares me, as you say.

  5. Aymar Jean Christian November 22, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. I agree that “Precious,” like “The Color Purple” before it, speaks across racial boundaries. It’s part of what I was trying to get at, in a lengthy academic-y way, with this essay (http://blog.ajchristian.org/2009/11/20/rethinking-post-racial).

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