Friday, February 5, 2010

Ishmael Reed on Why Precious is Pathology Porn for White Folks

Even the Brits know that Precious has to be stopped.

In the United States, the movie Precious has been much discussed by critics, fans, and students of popular culture. In a post that could have been, I wrote a very sharp critique of the film where I described it as "pathology porn." But, I felt that given the devastating broadsides fired by folks such as Armond White that it would be much overkill. Practically, why try to improve on White's destructively perfect review.

With the nomination of Precious for an Oscar, the politics surrounding such noxious depictions of black life--an ugliness made so much more so given the ascendancy of the black family in Camelot that is the Obamas--will certainly be made center stage once more. Looking forward, I have something special in store for Precious when the time arrives (devious in fact, if I do say so myself). For now, load your guns and keep your powder dry: Here is noted cultural critic Ishmael Reed placing Precious in a broader context of white guilt, moral panics, and stereotypical depictions of "blackness" as synonymous with the "ghetto underclass." From the New York Times:

Fade to White

Oakland, Calif.

JUDGING from the mail I’ve received, the conversations I’ve had and all that I’ve read, the responses to “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” fall largely along racial lines.

Among black men and women, there is widespread revulsion and anger over the Oscar-nominated film about an illiterate, obese black teenager who has two children by her father. The author Jill Nelson wrote: “I don’t eat at the table of self-hatred, inferiority or victimization. I haven’t bought into notions of rampant black pathology or embraced the overwrought, dishonest and black-people-hating pseudo-analysis too often passing as post-racial cold hard truths.” One black radio broadcaster said that he felt under psychological assault for two hours. So did I.

The blacks who are enraged by “Precious” have probably figured out that this film wasn’t meant for them. It was the enthusiastic response from white audiences and critics that culminated in the film being nominated for six Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an outfit whose 43 governors are all white and whose membership in terms of diversity is about 40 years behind Mississippi. In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more “middle-class white Americans” to his film. Is the enthusiasm of such white audiences and awards committees based on their being comfortable with the stereotypes shown? Barbara Bush, the former first lady, not only hosted a screening of “Precious” but also wrote about it in Newsweek, saying: “There are kids like Precious everywhere. Each day we walk by them: young boys and girls whose home lives are dark secrets.” Oprah Winfrey, whose endorsement assisted the movie’s distribution and its acceptance among her white fanbase, said, “None of us who sees the movie can now walk through the world and allow the Preciouses of the world to be invisible.” Are Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey suggesting, on the basis of a fictional film, that incest is widespread among black families? Statistics tell us that it’s certainly no more prevalent among blacks than whites. The National Center for Victims of Crime notes: “Incest does not discriminate. It happens in families that are financially privileged, as well as those of low socio-economic status. It happens to those of all racial and ethnic descent, and to those of all religious traditions.”

Given the news media’s tendency to use scandals involving black men, both fictional and real, to create “teaching tools” about the treatment of women, it was inevitable that a black male character associated with incest would be used to begin some national discussion about the state of black families.

This use of movies and books to cast collective shame upon an entire community doesn’t happen with works about white dysfunctional families. It wasn’t done, for instance, with “Requiem for a Dream,” starring the great Ellen Burstyn, about a white family dealing with drug addiction, or with “The Kiss,” a memoir about incest — in that case, a relationship between a white father and his adult daughter.

Such stereotyping has led to calamities being visited on minority communities. I’ve suggested that the Newseum in Washington create a Hall of Shame, which would include the front pages of newspapers whose inflammatory coverage led to explosions of racial hatred. I’m thinking, among many others, of 1921’s Tulsa riot, which started with a rumor that a black man had assaulted a white woman, and resulted in the murder of 300 blacks.

Black films looking to attract white audiences flatter them with another kind of stereotype: the merciful slave master. In guilt-free bits of merchandise like “Precious,” white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans. Problems that members of the black underclass encounter are a result of their culture, their lack of personal responsibility.

It’s no surprise either that white critics — eight out of the nine comments used on the publicity Web site for “Precious” were from white men and women — maintain that the movie is worthwhile because, through the efforts of a teacher, this girl begins her first awkward efforts at writing.

Redemption through learning the ways of white culture is an old Hollywood theme. D. W. Griffith produced a series of movies in which Chinese, Indians and blacks were lifted from savagery through assimilation. A more recent example of climbing out of the ghetto through assimilation is “Dangerous Minds,” where black and Latino students are rescued by a curriculum that doesn’t include a single black or Latino writer.

By the movie’s end, Precious may be pushing toward literacy. But she is jobless, saddled with two children, one of whom has Down syndrome, and she’s learned that she has AIDS.

Some redemption.

Ishmael Reed is the author of the forthcoming “Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media.”


Anonymous said...

This is outrageous. Why is it when there are finally stories told about the oppression Black women face, there is an outcry from people who would rather have that continue to go unspoken. And Reed is straight up wrong about the one sided response from Black people, he clearly didn't listen to the conversations among young Black women in high school halls, or the outpouring of outrage from Black women in theatre lobbies saying, "finally, our stories are being told." This also resonated, and for good reason, among women of all nationalities. It is this REALITY that Reed is determined to have continue to be ignored. Revolution newspaper ran a powerful and DEEP response to Reed's last attack on Precious from Carl Dix and Annie Day, and it stands up to this one, "The Controversy over PRECIOUS: The Demonization of Black Men? Or, Shining a Light on the Squandered Potential of 'Precious Girls Everywhere' and Why Everyone Should Want That Realized"

Anonymous said...

I agree with the writer of the previous post. I haven't seen the movie yet but as soon as the dvd is released I will be the first in line. Yes, I'm a white woman. Yes, I'm from Alabama. Also, yes, I have a biracial grandson. Both my daughters have many black friends. I read PUSH and liked it tremendously. I did not get the impression that depiction of incest was aimed solely at African Americans. The book and movie Bastard out of Carolina portrayed violent incest among members of a white family. For God's sake, fictionalized incest among whites goes at least back to Faulkner in the first half of the previous century. With all due respect to Mr. Reed's literary work, I don't see how he can assume that black people everywhere are disgusted by Precious.

gordon gartrelle said...

It's extremely dishonest to frame the response to the movie (and to anything) in such simplistic terms: "black people hate it; white liberals love it!" Opinions on the movie are all over the map.

But it's also wrong to imply that those who don't like "Precious" are merely defenders of black male patriarchy who would like to keep black female oppression in the dark. What if the movie just sucks? What if the director is a manipulative hack? What if the story is just playing on the oldest stereotypes and the faux-liberal "concern" with black pathology?

My problems with the praise surrounding the movie are:

1) that people are speaking as if victimhood itself makes the main character noble, and that that black women are being told to view this (abject victimhood) as THEIR story.

and 2) the exploitative, quasi-racist spectacle of the fat, black, illiterate, poor, abused, single black mother being degraded at every turn. I enjoy a good freakshow. But I find it reprehensible to pretend like the freakshow is a socially enlightened work that's respectful of the freaks.

Shady_Grady said...

Ishmael Reed is one of my favorite writers and is of course a pretty opinionated fellow. That NYT piece was a much edited version of an earlier piece Reed wrote on "Precious" which the first poster referenced.

Dix and Day write that Reed is upholding misogyny. I think that's a really unfair characterization of Reed. It tells me more about Dix and Day than it does Reed.

In case anyone hadn't read Reed's
original piece it is below. It is EXTREMELY long. I mean LONG.

As is pointed out this whole "Precious" phenomenon is really life imitating art imitating life (Percival Everett's book "Erasure" was in part a satirical response to the book "Push" and the sort of popularity that Black pathology has in certain circles)

FreeMan said...

I'm glad you posed this because I was repulsed by the movie Precious. Where are our Black writers that can write love stories and a host of other things. Why is any black movie somehow a wake up call for the masses of Blacks. When Jim Carry plays dumb and dumberer did anyone think whites breed ignorant people?

I literally abstained from any conversation about the movie. I'm glad I stopped over to read this.

chaunceydevega said...

@Shady--Got to love the name by the way. Thanks for the other link, I am going to use it in class-I am teaching a course on black popular culture and we are talking about Madea and Precious in a few weeks. Funny, the students are already ramping up to defend those films. Question: is Precious a type of coonery or minstrel show?

@Freeman--You were actually able to sit through it. I walked into it, saw the rape scene, looked around at the white folks, young blacks, and our elders in their best church clothes and was sickened. I said to myself this is going to be such a problem. I bet you it will when the Oscar. Question: will Precious' win be worst than Hustle and Flow's winning best song?

Shady_Grady said...

Yes, it is coonery but to be honest coonery pays well and no longer has the negative connotation it had previously.

For me the issue is not just that a movie like "Precious" exists. People should make whatever sorts of movies they like and view what they like. There will also be movies made that are not my taste. No biggie.

My issue is that not only is "Precious" a relentlessly ugly film but that its supporters seem to think that it has something to tell us about black life. It doesn't. It tells us about what's going on in the heads of Lee Daniels and Sapphire and the media personalities who fall over themselves to praise the movie. "Pink Flamingos" does not instruct me about whites; "Precious" has nothing to tell me about blacks.

Why is it that there are few to no movies in which the basic hero story is played out for black people-boy meets girl, boy loses girl, lovers overcome some deep challenge and ride off into the sunset? This is not rocket science. The fact is that whites generally will not come out to see
movies like that. That's the problem. The writer/screenwriter Steven Barnes has written a lot about this phenomenon.

Something is wrong in a society in which Meagan Goode still has to take roles playing the girlfriend to a white starlet or Thandie Newton is turned down for a role because the white casting director doesn't think it's believable that a black girl would be a university graduate. How many movies do we see that show strong, conflicted but rewarding love between a black man and a black woman? Heck, how many movies do we see that show tenderness between a black man and ANYBODY?

This is longer than I wanted to write but again my issue is not just with the movie "Precious" but with the fact that it fits into a line of media discourse that shows black people as other and less than. A movie like "Honeydripper" sinks like a stone commercially and gets ignored critically but a movie like "Precious" gets rave reviews. Whatever. I guess that's just the world we live in. It's just truly amazing to me that a film that looks as if it could have been written by the same person that came up with "Shirley Q. Liquor" gets critical acclaim.

Cobb said...

It's OK not to care. In fact, ignoring this sort of thing may be the only sane way out.

ishmael reed said...

Hi,Folks, Here's a message I sent to Carl
Dix of the RCP. (by the way, what are the
chances of Ms.Annie and Carl replacing the
white patriarchal leader,who runs te RCP in
this day and age). OK:

carl, what are these women doing calling me a misogynist when they belong to a movement that revolves
around the personality of a white male patriarch, and given their attitudes toward black men do you think
that you'll ever become leader of the revolutionary communist party? also has Ms Annie Day ever
written about the oppression of women who share her ethnic background? where can i read it?
Best,Ishmael ps some blacks say that they left the party because of white chauvinism. is that true?

Anonymous said...

I want to recommend a similar book that I read that hasn't been getting a lot of attention. It's called THAT MEAN OLD YESTERDAY by an author named Stacy Patton. It's a book about a girl who grew up in an abused house but it's a TRUE story and tells of how she escaped through education. She made herself into a self-made young woman. This is the kind of inspirational story that black people need to read about ourselves. This book challenges all stereotypes about blacks and their families.

carl_dix said...

If anything could be more wrong than Ishmael Reed on Precious, it’s Ishmael Reed on Bob Avakian, the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party. (Reed referred to Avakian, though not by name, in his post of Feb 6th re: Ishmael Reed on Why Precious is Pathology Porn for White Folks.) Bob Avakian is the most revolutionary leader out there today. His work provides a foundation for hope and inspiration on a solid, scientific basis. Anybody who wants to see ALL the oppression this system brings down on people, and refuses to choose between dealing with this oppression or that one, needs to check out Avakian at

Here's 2 important things Bob Avakian says on the questions being discussed here.

"In many ways, and particularly for men, the oppression of women and whether you seek to completely abolish or to preserve the existing property and social relations and corresponding ideology that enslave women (or maybe "just a little bit" of them) is a touchstone question among the oppressed themselves. It is a dividing line between "wanting in" and really "wanting out": between fighting to end all oppression and exploitation--and the very division of society into classes--and seeking in the final analysis to get your part in this."

"There will never be a revolutionary movement in this country that doesn't fully unleash and give expression to the sometimes openly expressed, sometimes expressed in partial ways, sometimes expressed in wrong ways, but deeply, deeply felt desire to be rid of these long centuries of oppression (of Black people). There's never gonna be a revolution in this country, and there never should be, that doesn't make that one key foundation of what it's all about."

Carl Dix, Revolutionary Communist Party

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, denial, guilt and ignorance are not exclusive to the white race. I remember when Bill Cosby was criticized for his portrayal of Dr. Huxtabul , because it was "too white". Now, the reverse is true for criticizing precious for telling a true depiction of so many people's lives. The truth is, the human experience, is common amongst us all, it is the nature of living in a difficult world, filled with good and bad people of all races. I hate racists no matter what the color of their skin.