Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Musing on Precious and Shaniya Davis


Every scene in a movie represents a choice by the director, every
line in a
book represents a choice by an author.

A significant portion of my understanding of what it means to be an artist
in New York is rooted in the PUSH era. When I visited New York in '97 to
look at colleges, I stayed a couple nights at Barnard with my friends and
was able to watch Sapphire read from the novel way back then. When I
finally moved here I would see her around the city. For me, she was a
walking, living, embodiment of a Black woman writer.

I went to see Precious Friday night and on the way, I reread the
so that I would have proper context. I wanted to see it in
a theater made up of mostly Black people as I was concerned not
only with the film, but how the audience read it.

It was sold out in Chinatown I trooped all the way down to Georgetown,
by the water, which is pretty and reminds me of Brooklyn Heights.
The audience
was approximately 60 percent Black and 40 percent

I appreciated the fact that Lee Daniels used the book as the main text
the screenplay. I also appreciate the fact that a young Black woman was
the subject of both the book and the film.

However I wondered, like so many other people why does it take a teenaged
dark brown skinned, Black, pregnant, illterate, HIV positive, incest victim for
black womens subjectivity to make to the silver screen?

In mainstream media, are we either marked pathological beings or video vixens?

Last Monday, I asked on Twitter, whether Black women (who follow me)
would be going to see Precious. One friend had already went to see it,
and two said that they wouldn't because they "weren't trying to deal with
all that" right now. The women on Twitter said that they had gone or
would be going to see it. However they were concerned with the ways
in which White people were reacting to it. I was immediately reminded
of this notion of reflected appraisal theory which involves a person
evaluating them selves through the eyes of another.

I wondered if by being concerned about White reception to the film,
where we in fact doing that.
I also thought it was interesting to ask
why White people enjoy Precious, but that we never talk about
white teenagers enjoy rap music.

I was biased towards the movie because of Armond Whites article
(and Juell Stuart's article in Color Lines.) But I realized that
Armond may
have read the film differently had he read the book recently.
His critique is
that the film lacked an analysis of the structural forces
that created both
Precious and her momma. And this is true. But the book
lacks this as well.
Sapphire clearly alludes to it through the scenes
where Precious is in the
reading and writing class, her meetings with
the social worker, and her
meetings with her middle school principal. But the state of the world and
Black women and never mentioned explicitly.

If a viewer knew nothing about Black women and saw that film, they
would think that we are crazy, diseased, pathological, animals.
not explicitly talking about the forces acting on our lives, the film

runs the risk of placing the responsibility for the conditions of their lives
exclusivly on the shoulders of the characters.

Where did Precious's momma come from? What made her like that?

The film and the book take place in 1986. There are three major sctructural

forces acting on Black people in general and Black women specifically
the country in urban areas. The crack epidemic is at full tilt, piles
of Black
bodies were the streets, there is movement to sterilize low
income Black women,
and HIV, which is categorized as a both a White
gay mans and drug addicts
(of all races) disease, is killing Black people
on the low.

Ironically, I last week I was also assigned to read Cathy Cohens Boundary of
AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics and the first two
chapters Cohen
lays out some the structural forces impacting Precious's life
such as the failure to provide adequate HIV care to Black people.

Which brings me to Shaniya Davis. I hope when reading about the lives
this little girl and her mother that we think about the structural forces
impacted a mothers willingness to sell her daughter into prostitution.

I told Jonzey two weeks ago that we are undergoing a paradigm shift.
That the conditions will continue to worsen until we collectively do
about it.

The murder of Derrion Albert, the raping of the teenager outside of that high
school in Richmond, the Fort Hood killings a couple of weeks ago and
the prositition and murder of Shaniya Davis are all connected in that
reveal aspects about the status and detoriotion of our collective humanity.

Back to Precious. The the main structural weakness in the movie
ispresent in the book which is that
there is no explicit conversation
about the forces acting on
these womens lives.

The film also has another structural weakness. The music video montage

scenes are exist with the specific intent of iliciting laughter from the audience,

which in fact is what happened. These were the consistent scenes in the film
where folks laughed at Precious. These scenes were not in the book and I
would imagine Daniels inserted them to add some lightness to an otherwise
intense film. However, in doing so, he drowned out the subtle transformation
that Precious went through. Its like he went Hype Williams with The Color
Purple, in those scenes.

The subtle transformation is what is special about the book. We have
all had subtle transformation. They don't happen overnight. They happen,
little by little, day by day, month by month, and "suddenly" we are a new person.

Precious started out pregnant, and illterate, by the end of the book, she was
able to articulate that she was raped by her father, she questioned that fact that
the state wanted her to do workfare rather than continue her education,
she also articulated that she loved herself, her children and that she wanted an
education, and she moved out of her momma's house.

In the film Precious "walks off into the sunset" with both of her children. Jonzey
points out that the reality is that this young woman is HIV postive, will
die soon and that
these children will be orphans. As Jonzey said, is
it possible that Black woman director would have dealt with that differntly?
Perhaps. Its hard to say given the fact that the book ended
with scene where
Precious has left her momma's house and is in a shelter, playing with
mothering her son.

You see the movie, what did you think?

What does creating a Black women's Bollywood look like?

We clearly have the money, we simply need the will, strategy and
fortitude to tell our own stories?


John K said...

Thanks so much for this excellent post. I particularly like your analysis of the lack of reference to the larger social, political and economic forces that impact the behavior of the characters in the book, in the film, and in today's society. It's so easy--and common, unfortunately--for people to respond devoid of context to tragedies like the ones you list.

M.Dot. said...

John, I am glad you like it.
Last week, I learned that I am a structuralist, lulz.

It shows, no?

kathy said...

I appreciate the post too. I saw the film last night, and have been struggling to grasp my ambivalence about it. I am straddling my discomfort with the lack of structual analysis, and my awe at the performances. I'm not sure that Mary's actions need explanation in the way you suggest- one of the reviews said it should have shown that she had a conscience. That is as liberal as the audiences and producers selling the film. But I have to think more about how this could have been represented. I agree with the contrast made between this film and the films of Mike Leigh- suggested by Armond White I think. Ken Roach is another film-maker, more didactic (not a negative term)--his character studies always evolve in clearly elaborated social context. At any rate, the matriarch myth and myth of underclass is always great sell, along with HOPE AND UPLIFT... ETC..

Model Minority said...

Hi Kathy,

Thank you for stopping by. I have a couple of questions for you.

Given the time and spacial context of the film, if we don't have a context for Mary's action's doesn't she just appear like she was born evil?

Don't have have to believe this in order for her scene @ the end of the movie to make sense? Isn't this manipulative?

Why is the matriarch myth allways a great sell? Who does this myth benefit/harm?

Anonymous said...

I saw the movie at a film festival back in October, and I agree that there should have been a little more background into Mary. There isn't in the book either, which may be why Daniels didn't add anything, but during one of the scenes where something awful is happening to Precious there's a shot of Precious (as a child) and her mother, I think opening presents during Christmas, smiling at each other like a normal mother and daughter. I was left wondering what took them from that to what we saw in the movie. Her self esteem being so low that she would accept anything from her boyfriend? I get that the book and movie are more for young girls who are going through abuse and incest, but it would have been equally insightful to see what causes a woman to choose her man over her child? Because, unfortunately, white or black there are many women in this country who do just that.

I'm an aspiring actress and writer, and hope to create what you call a "Black Bollywood" (I like that!). It's a hard prospect, though, because I think the reason why some our greatest works are so depressing and miserable is because we've struggled as a people for centuries now, and have trained ourselves and teach our children not to dream. We drown in the dredges of realism. So how do you create a fantasy for Black people? I have little ideas, but it seems that when things are accepted by the mainstream (white people), black people shy away from it like it's another thing that's been taken from them. I'm thinking more historical projects, like some gorgeous vivid tale of the queens and kings of West Africa...

Model Minority said...

but it would have been equally as insightful to see what causes a woman to choose her man over her child?
That, my dear is the issue.

People choose spouses over babies, jobs over spouses, money over children, etc.

All of these need to be explored becuase they get at the very fabric of what makes our world tick work and fall apart.

Black Bollywood is hard but not impossible.

Black women have money, raise children, and we like pretty things and to see our stories told.

If Tyler Perry can build an empire cross dressing (because thats what he feels most comfortable doing, yet refuses to make a movie about that) then we can find a way to create sustain and support alternatie media.

I reason like this, we got out of chattle slavery, we can get out of this shit too.

Explain what you meant about fantasy creating Black images.

Thank you for commenting and responding.


Anonymous said...

By creating a fantasy for Black people, I mean looking into adapting stories or folk tales about Black people that are about more than slavery and the Civil Rights movement. If you look at all mainstream movies, they are all some type of fantasy, from the romantic comedies to the historical dramas to the action-adventures. We've got the comedy thing down, and the gritty realism down (and comedy tends to be how people deal with extreme pain, so those two are related), and Tyler Perry seems to have the melodrama thing down, but we should be doing more sci-fi, more family dramas (because there should be more than just TP's stuff), more psychological thrillers, more film noir, etc. Then Black films would be more well rounded, and stories like "Precious" wouldn't be so controversial.

I was talking with my landlord who was a member of SNCC and participated in the voter's rights fight. He was saying that so much of our history was oral for so long that during times when our communities have been separated and destroyed by various obstacles, these stories have been lost and all we know now is what we learn in public schools. I'm not saying that all Black film should be adapted from true stories or old folk tales, but I do think that it would be uplifting for Black people to see that our history is more than our victimization, and that there are more people than just the singular figures like MLK, Rosa Parks, etc. who changed our lives.

I'm feeling rambly, but it's 5:45am on a Saturday and I can't go back to sleep. I hope that answered your question.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review I will most definitely read the book before watching the movie.

Model Minority said...

I am glad you like it

Thank you for taking the time to answer my question.

I am going to ask you a few questions.

My intent is to make connections between your comment and push you further. I hope that you receive them in the spirit that they are intended.

1. What is the connection between the ways in which Black people are presented and the ways in which White people are presented in movies and television?

2. Whose interest are being served by Black folks being presented as "gritty" and "real" but never scientific, loving, complex, or in fantasy realms?

3. How sigificant is it that Precious can get made but a Halle Berry Denzel movie cannot and arguably will not get made, Unless Black women pay for it?

4.What is the connection/differnce between the art being made now and the art made from the Black arts movement (which explcitly made films, literature FOR Black people about Black people)?
Why is this significant?


Unknown said...

i read the book when it was first released. it was tough to get through, but i am glad I read it. I dug what Sapphire was trying to do and i think it was important

EVEN back then I realized that quite honestly, this could never be adapted into a movie. It is just too deep. there are so many layers to deal with.

My beef is with the movies hollywood green lights and the ones they don't. It seems that Hollywood follows the same tired old pattern. Black folks are buffoons or pathological. That's it. no in betweens. no balance.

personally, maybe a black woman would have been a better director/writer for this adaptation.

Anonymous said...

“If a viewer knew nothing about Black women and saw that film, they
would think that we are crazy, diseased, pathological, animals”

Powerful statement about the film, and the comprehension of a evermore racially segmented society.

Can we blame people for their ignorance, if we literally know they don’t know any better?

I’m a notorious non/late movie watcher.. so I’ve yet to see “Precious”. Given my Tyler Perry disdain, mixed with his an Oprah’s money bringing, the film to life, and my cynical intrigue at all of the praise its been receiving,I’ve definitely told myself I haft to see this movie so I can accurately spout my opinion on it.

In the meantime I been reading damn every review I can find on the movie, (I’ve become very well acquainted with the "Shadow and Act"… website lately) good, and of the extremely negative lot..

While I’ve read and heard many things that normally might make me abhor the movie and avoid ever viewing it, a phrase I often I often view as a disdainful debate crutch “Its based on real life”, has kept me kinda of balanced in my outward assessment of the film so far.

We all have all have an inclination to gravitate towards art that relates to us on some level, and given the fact that I was an 8 yr old living with a manic depressive, violent, crack addicted mother around the time the “Precious” is set in, the movie just resonates with me on some level, even without seeing it.

“Where did Precious's momma come from? What made her like that?”


Great point and question, because there is always a history behind every finished product.

“Its like he went Hype Williams with The Color
Purple, in those scenes”.
Crazy..line yo

And the whole concept of “reflected appraisal” is stirring in my head now….

Nice read.

Model Minority said...


Thank you for stopping by.

Thank you for being honest. It's what sets my blog apart from the rest. WE GO THERE. Feel me?

That Color Purple line is my favorite line. When you see the movie you will know what I am talking about.


Lady Dani Mo said...

“Its like he went Hype Williams with The Color
Purple, in those scenes”.

LMAO that is a classic analogy to Lee Daniels' pseudo similar Hype Williams cinematography. Thanks alot M.Dot for the laugh. Well it seems that your blog is a safer place for me to vent on my criticisms on this film. Whenever I give my opinions on this film, there are usually unpopular. I think because most Blacks tend to treat Black films that are accepted and widely praised by the masses (White people) as prized value. So they should be off limits to be criticized. I don't think "Precious" was a bad film. However, it was problematic and to me not worth the praise.

I have to agree with you and many others that there was not much background on the mother to explain why she was the way she was. I think it would be effective for us to understand her more. It would be empathizing with the antagonist but not the antagonist action. One of my issues with the film is Lee Daniels' change in Ms. Rain appearance. I know I know when we discuss colorism it does not go over well. I know M. Dot that you guest post on Racialicious so you probably read the post about the discussion on Ms. Rain's appearance. It was just nothing but derailing. It was known that Precious suffered from internalize racism. Wanting to be White because she felt her life would be better and having a light skin boyfriend. Ms. Rain in the novel was a dark skin woman with dreadlocks. It seem that Lee Daniels' just skimmed over that issue of her resolving her issue with her appearance. Towards the end of the film she still had the issue when she jotted her thoughts in her journal for her daily journal entries for Ms. Rain. I heard in the book she started to overcome it but why did Lee Daniel's skim over that?

As far as the ending, it was weak. Okay you see Precious leaving the social worker's office with her two children and then what? It also doesn't touch on her dealing on she dealt with being HIV positive. I don't know M. Dot in a film aspect this film left me hanging. It was just a bunch of time spent on her mother being evil to her without much back story and also solutions to other issues she had besides sexual abuse and incest.

Now as far as the film being received, I have to agree that Black women do not have many diverse images. We are often monolithic in Hollywood. In order for us to receive any attention we have the portray "the down trodden Black woman" it gets old and played. I do agree with the commenter that said that in order to change the singular Black stories portrayed on films and TV, we would have to diversify Black images and that includes film genres. Like Film Noirs, Sci-Fi, etc. I would love to see a film on fictional Black historical figures that do not include musicians. Can we have a Bessie Coleman story? Her life is pretty interesting. But she is often overlook.

M.Dot. said...

I just hung out w/ my homie, who went to school w/ the dude who wrote the screenplay. Apparently, the original treatment had FAR MORE nuance in it re precious and mary. It was taken out. Hmmmp.

Can we have a Bessie Coleman story? Her life is pretty interesting. But she is often overlook.
Shit. Wasn't she Bi? Oh. Wait, that was Bessie Smith, no?
That. Would be an awesome movie, and I bet Angela Davis could Executive Produce. I'm saying.

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