By Mia Charlene White, MIT doctoral candidate, Race-Talk contributor
I always take a good look around me before any movie starts. The night I went to see Precious, I saw friends, lovers, mother-daughter looking duos. I saw a lot of women -- maybe 50% women of color, of those mostly Black, and several there alone like me. When the previews finally ended and the first scenes emerged, that familiar feeling set in"the one that says this is going to be simple and good. And it was. It was goodly because we are reminded that despite the self-hatred, rage, depression, cruelty, and madness - despite it all, we can still love, laugh, care for, and treasure each other. We can survive.
I've read some reviews which, in tone, seemed to take an experiential distance from the knowledge of violence. This usually turns up in coded sentences of amazement and disbelief that this could have occurred anywhere. I honestly wish I could sit down with those folk and challenge them to dig deeper and uncover their own hidden memories. Certainly, violent and depraved visual depictions can be a shock to the system and there may be some unconscious reaction to say to oneself -- wow, that's unreal -- I've never had those feelings, or, nothing like that has ever happened to me or anyone I know. But I would say -- Really? Are you sure?
For me, it's lazy to simply objectify the childhood and institutional violence we saw and focus on that as the big point. That gives in to the worst aspects of modern society, i.e., super charged emotional experience leads not to a discussion of what effect the film had on you but rather, what it must mean about the city, the "urban ghetto", Black girls, Black men, Black women, etc. The violence was a means, people, not the end.
In thinking about Precious, I'm asking you not to let the distance take hold of your perspective, because that distance creates false gender, sex, race, class, urban-ghetto/rural essentialisms and borders. That distancing can lead to objectification and even, the pretense of a mastery over the ideas or the people portrayed in the film. Precious gave us the chance to inhabit a snippet of her life, not for a thrill, but to ask ourselves, what do I learn from Precious?
Even as I shakily stood up when the film was over, I felt a kind of quiet, mourning, reminiscing state in the faces around me, in me. We were pained, yet still moving. Just like Precious. You see, the film didn't freeze frame her, or the city, or even the other characters. The film wasn't a picture of who Precious is forever and ever, but rather a snapshot of her becoming. Horror, sadness, laughter all in, and becoming.
What touched me most about the film was its familiarity -- its ability to bring me back to forgotten truths about the rawness of survival (of all the characters, through good means or unthinkable). I recognized some of Precious' facial expressions, some of her mom's, her friends', the social worker's, the teacher's. I recognized New York (although some of the music was wrong for 1987) and remembered the boys on my block bringing out cardboard boxes to break dance; I remember their cruelty too, when hanging out on corners. I especially remembered the unitard that Precious' mom wore several times, the one she was wearing as she danced in front of the TV. My mom and I used to sell that exact unitard for $20 at the Colliseum on Jamaica Avenue. "Back in the days when I was young, I'm not a kid anymore, but some days I sit and wish I was a kid again" (Remember Ahmad?).
I loved it when Precious asks Mariah Carey's character, "What type of Black are you"? I appreciated the question and its framing, the recognition of we-ness yet also, of the politics of color, particularly because Precious' blackness was a central aspect of the film. In asking the social worker this question, Precious was trying to situate the politics, trying to gauge how she might be manipulated, where the conversation was going, while also trying to postpone that conversation. As importantly, this particular scene's tone, camera work, and make-up all were asking us see the social worker's pain too. I saw some frozen depths in those eyes, in that young-old face, understanding then that this movie is in part, about the ways we try to survive. For some, survival involves inflicting serious cruelty onto others, as was the case of Precious' mother, and even to a lesser extent, Precious' own occasional cruelty towards her young neighbor. For others, like Nurse John, Ms. Rain, Precious' grandma, or Carey's character, survival is about trying to help. The social worker ultimately was not written with the ability to "go-there" with Precious. But I think her limitations, just like Precious' mom's limitations, taught Precious and us something -- we have to find the strength to keep moving.
How brave Precious is. When her mom calls her over from the kitchen that one time, and she walks over with frying pan in-hand, I thought, Lord -- I would never have had the guts to do that. And I swear, someone in the theatre muttered the same sentiment at just that moment. Precious was standing up for herself, pain-in-hand. She was not going to let herself be killed, physically or otherwise. Precious showed us that we don't have to throw up our hands in hopeless despair at her situation. Cringe, but stay in it -- don't look away. And don't hate me for this but Precious' mom is brave too. Her admission at the end took introspection, and her reflections might take others a lifetime in therapy. Don't misunderstand -- she did so much wrong that, well, I don't even know how to finish the sentence. Yet, she too, would be considered a child of God, would she not? That for me, is less about forgiveness or how inhumane she was and more about recognizing the stranger within all of us.
I've read reviews that focus on the monster that Precious' mom is, about how this is the stereotyping of Black matriarchs, etc. I've known Black, White, Korean, Latina and Native women really similar to Precious' mom, and I've known women quite unlike her as well. I can't accept that this one movie will accelerate the stereotyping of Black women, of big women, of young women of color, of single moms, of urban places. Doesn't every movie reinforce some stereotype?
All in all, the film's writers and director were on to some truths about survival for Black women and people in general, and while they might not have quite gotten all the way there, the entire cast is first-rate. Sidibe and Mo'Nique made that apartment very, very real. By the way, the Caribbean sister was fantastic -- didn't anyone else catch this? When she led the class while Ms. Rain is on the phone, she was sarcastic, intelligent and quick. I wanted to know more about her, and about the sister who was holding the baby in that scene.
Caveat: I did not read Push, though I plan to. I hear that in the book, Ms. Rain is dark-skinned and had locks. For all of us who are black, brown, beige and bone -- why not cast Ms. Rain properly? It's not a deal breaker for me, but I have to ask the question. Maybe we'll get lucky and find out.
Mia Charlene White is a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where she studies urban and political sociology. She is a National Science Foundation Predissertation Fellow and a Ford Foundation Minority Predissertation Fellow. Prior to returning to school, Mia's work focused on gender, race and post-Katrina redevelopment. She is generally interested in the socio-spatial aspects of solidarity, identity, and citizenship.