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Suggest that you read the book, "PUSH"

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Oprah Is Wrong About ‘Precious' By: Teresa Wiltz | Posted: November 6, 2009 at 12:47 PM

But you still need to go see Lee Daniels’ brilliant, powerful new film about a Harlem black girl in trouble.

11/06/2009 12:47

Inner-city girl, inner-city school, talented teacher. You may think you’ve seen this story before. You may think you’ve heard this story before. You haven’t. As Toni Morrison once noted, she wrote the The Bluest Eye to give voice to the interior lives of black girls. The eponymous subject of Precious: Based On the Novel by Sapphire is so outside the margins, to many folks, she doesn’t register as human: She’s fat, female and black, and for many, she doesn’t exist, except as an object of pity or scorn. And the genius of this movie is that it makes you feel with her, through her.

There is hype and there is Hype, and the hoopla surrounding Precious is Hype triple-squared, exclamation point. There have been cover stories and over-the-top Oprah promos and much to-do over the makeovers and make-unders of the film’s stars. (Mariah! Mo’Nique! Lenny!) A film with this much advance pub is bound to disappoint, done under by the weight of so much expectation and promise.

And yet, it doesn’t. Noamount of hype can prepare you for the visceral shock that you get from watching this film. Precious is that powerful. It’s also brutal, bitter, painful, and, at times, really hard to take. It’s got a lot of a lot: A lot of urban pathology, a lot of sadness and grief and a whole lot of rage and venom and jaw-dropping cruelty. It’s also a thing of beauty, aural, visual, spiritual, beauty found in the most unlikely of places. In director Lee Daniels’ hands, even a pot of pig’s feet simmering on the stove becomes poetry. As does the life of a morbidly obese black girl in Harlem.

As the title suggests—awkwardly—Precious is indeed based on Push, the 1996 novel by Sapphire, in which an illiterate 16-year-old (stunning newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) finds herself pregnant by her father. Again. The incestuous father is long gone, but the mother, Mary, is still around, a malevolent presence in her daughter’s life, bullying from her perch in front of the TV, spewing a constant stream of invective: “You’re a dummy. Don’t nobody want you; don’t nobody need you.” Whenever Mary (Mo’Nique) deigns to get up from the couch—which isn’t often—it is to wield a frying pan upside Precious’ head.
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There isn’t much hope for Precious: When she’s not being abused by her mother, she’s being taunted by the boys on the streets. Food is her only comfort. She’s so beaten down that she can’t recognize friendship, batting it away when it is offered to her in the guise of the little neighborhood girl who’s always pestering her. Precious can’t see her, so caught up is she in her own pain. But when she’s offered a chance at attending an alternative school taught by a compassionate but demanding teacher (Paula Patton), she slowly, ever so slowly, begins to see the love that surrounds her. She allows herself to hope. And with hope, comes a chance at some sort of redemption.

“Every day I tell myself, something gon’ happen,” she muses to herself. “I’m going to break through, or someone’s going to break through to me … someday.”

This is a film about metaphysical need, DNA-deep, adolescent-sized, existential longing and the power of popular culture to—temporarily—transform unspeakable realities into BET fantasies. (This is BET circa 1987, folks, glamorous and glitzy, years before the era of booty-shaking video vixens.)

“I want to be on the cover of a magazine,” Precious says in a voiceover. “I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with real nice hair. But first, I wanna be in one of them BET videos.”

Precious escapes the depravity of her world through vivid flights of fancy: In the midst of a rape, the ceiling above her melts and morphs into the aforementioned video music shoot, where she is the star, posing and preening. Pictures in photo albums talk to her, cooing reassuringly; Precious and her mother replace the characters in an old Sophia Loren movie—speaking in Italian. She looks in the mirror and sees a pretty white girl with long blonde hair. In this other universe, all is well, and Precious is wanted, loved, cherished.

Daniels (Monster’s Ball, Shadowboxer) films the action through a gauzy, sepia-toned haze, as if looking back on the past, telling her story through flashbacks, daydreams and voiceovers read from Precious’ diary. The effect is arresting, but without the powerhouse performances of his actors, it could easily be an empty exercise in filmmaking pyrotechnics. But Daniels has a real talent for pulling performances-of-a-lifetime out of his actors. As a producer, he cast Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, winning her an Oscar. He grabs the unlikely—Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Mo’Nique—and encourages them to subsume their personas in service to the character. They’re all unrecognizable in their roles, and not because Carey decided to forgo the lipstick. They make you believe. Mo’Nique, in particular, is a revelation: She’s all snears and sullen putdowns, greedy, grasping, nasty. But in the comedian’s hands, we recognize the humanity in the monster, without wanting to forgive her of her trespasses.

A word about all that hype: Oprah, who serves as executive producer along with Tyler Perry, has pushed the film hard, and she is to be commended for throwing her weight behind a little film. It deserves every bit of attention that it gets. But there’s something discomfiting about her declarations that “We are all Precious.” In short, she Oprah-fies Precious, rendering Precious’ fierce individuality the stuff of platitudes and Stewart Smiley moments on SNL.

No, we are not all Precious. We all get our power from the individuality of our stories. Precious stands alone.

Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.

Bad Black Mothers posted by Melissa Harris-Lacewell on 11/24/2009 @ 7:59pm

Bad black mothers are everywhere these days.

With Michelle Obama in the White House, consciously and conspicuously serving as mom-in-chief, I expected (even somewhat dreaded) a resurgence of Claire Huxtable images of black motherhood: effortless glamour, professional success, measured wit, firm guidance, loving partnership, and the calm reassurance that American women can, in fact, have it all.

Instead the news is currently dominated by horrifying images of African American mothers.

Most ubiquitous is the near universally celebrated performance of Mo'Nique in the new film Precious. Critically and popularly acclaimed Precious is the film adaption of the novel Push. It is the story of an illiterate, obese, dark-skinned, teenager who is pregnant, for the second time, with her rapist father's child. (Think The Color Purple in a 1980s inner-city rather than 1930s rural Georgia)

At the core of the film is Precious' unimaginably brutal mother. She is an unredeemed monster who brutalizes her daughter verbally, emotionally, physically and sexually. This mother pimps both her daughter and the government. Stealing her daughter's childhood and her welfare payments.

Just as Precious was opening to national audiences a real-life corollary emerged in the news cycle, when 5-year-old Shaniya Davis was found dead along a roadside in No.... Her mother, a 25-year-old woman with a history of drug abuse, has been arrested on charges of child trafficking. The charges allege that this mother offered her 5-year-old daughter for sex with adult men.

Yet another black mother made headlines in the past week, when U.S. soldier, Alexis Hutchinson, refused to report for deployment to Afghanistan. Hutchinson is a single mother of an infant, and was unable to find suitable care for her son before she was deployed. She had initially turned to her own mother who found it impossible to care for the child because of prior caregiver commitments. Stuck without reasonable accommodations, Hutchinson chose not to deploy. Hutchinson's son was temporally placed in foster care. She faces charges and possible jail time.

These stories are a reminder, that for African American women, reproduction has never been an entirely private matter.

Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, chose the stories of enslaved black mothers to depict the most horrifying effects of American slavery. In her novel, Beloved, Morrison reveals the unimaginable pain some black mothers experienced because their children were profitable for their enslavers. Enslaved black women did not birth children; they produced units for sale, measurable in labor contributions. Despite the patrilineal norm that governed free society, enslaved mothers were forced to pass along their enslaved status to their infants; ensuring intergenerational chattel bondage was the first inheritance black mothers gave to black children in America.

As free citizens black women's reproduction was no longer directly tied to profits. In this new context, black mothers became the object of fierce eugenics efforts. Black women, depicted as sexually insatiable breeders, are adaptive for a slave holding society but not for the new context of freedom. Black women's assumed lasciviousness and rampant reproduction became threatening. In Killing the Black Body, law professor, Dorothy Roberts, explains how the state employed involuntary sterilization, pressure to submit to long-term birth control, and restriction of state benefits for large families as a means to control black women's reproduction.

At the turn of the century many public reformers held African American women particularly accountable for the "degenerative conditions" of the race. Black women were blamed for being insufficient housekeepers, inattentive mothers, and poor educators of their children. Because women were supposed to maintain society's moral order, any claim about rampant disorder was a burden laid specifically at women's feet.

In a 1904 pamphlet "Experiences of the Race problem. By a Southern White Woman" the author claims of black women, "They are the greatest menace possible to the moral life of any community where they live. And they are evidently the chief instruments of the degradation of the men of their own race. When a man's mother, wife, and daughters are all immoral women, there is no room in his fallen nature for the aspirations of honor and virtue…I cannot imagine such a creation as a virtuous black woman."

Decades later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" designated black mothers as the principal cause of a culture of pathology, which kept black people from achieving equality. Moynihan's research predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but instead of identifying the structural barriers facing African American communities, he reported the assumed deviance of Negro families.

This deviance was clear and obvious, he opined, because black families were led by women who seemed to have the primary decision making roles in households. Moynihan's conclusions granted permission to two generations of conservative policy makers to imagine poor, black women as domineering household managers whose unfeminine insistence on control both emasculated their potential male partners and destroyed their children's future opportunities. The Moynihan report encouraged the state not to view black mother as women doing the best they could in tough circumstances, but instead to blame them as unrelenting cheats who unfairly demand assistance from the system.

Black mothers were again blamed as the central cause of social and economic decline in the early 1990s, when news stories and popular films about "crack babies" became dominant. Crack babies were the living, squealing, suffering evidence of pathological black motherhood and American citizens were going to have to pay the bill for the children of these bad mothers.

Susan Douglass and Meredith Michaels, authors of The Mommy Myth explain that media created the "crack baby" phenomenon as a part of a broader history that understands black motherhood as inherently pathological. They write: "It turned out there was no convincing evidence that use of crack actually causes abnormal babies, even though the media insisted this was so…media coverage of crack babies serves as a powerful cautionary tale about the inherent fitness of poor or lower class African American women to be mothers at all."

This ugly history and its policy ramifications are the backdrop against which these three contemporary black mother stories must be viewed.

Undoubtedly Mo'Nique has given an amazing performance in Precious. But the critical and popular embrace of this depiction of a monstrous black mother has potentially important, and troubling, political meaning. In a country with tens of thousands of missing and exploited children, it is not accidental that the abuse and murder of Shaniya Davis captured the American media cycle just as Precious opened. The sickening acts of Shaniya's mother become the story that underlines and makes tangible, believable, and credible the jaw-dropping horror of Mo'Nique's character.

And here too is Alexis Hutchinson. As a volunteer soldier in wartime, she ought to embody the very core of American citizen sacrifice. Instead she is a bad black mother. Implied in the her story is the damning idea that Hutchinson has committed the very worse infraction against her child and her country. Hutchinson has failed to marry a responsible, present, bread-winning man who would free her of the need to labor outside the home. Hutchinson does not stay on the home front clutching her weeping young child as her man goes off to war. Instead, she struggles to find a safe place for him while she heads off to battle. Her motherhood is not idyllic, it is problematic. Like so many other black mothers her parenting is presented as disruptive to her duties as a citizen.

It is worth noting that Sarah Palin's big public comeback is situated right in the middle of this news cycle full of "bad black mothers." Palin's own eye-brow raising reproductive choices and parenting outcomes have been deemed off-limits after her skirmish with late night TV comedians. Embodied in Palin, white motherhood still represents a renewal of the American dream; black motherhood represents its downfall.

Each of these stories, situated in a long tradition of pathologizing black motherhood, serves a purpose. Each encourages Americans to see black motherhood as a distortion of true motherhood ideals. Its effect is troublesome for all mothers of all races who must navigate complex personal, familial, social, and political circumstances.
Something precious is missing
By Kira Hudson Banks on December 2, 2009
A “Precious” Reaction Teaser – This Friday a Race-Talk Special Edition

Living outside of a major metropolitan area can put a damper on being a moviegoer, but I finally saw Precious. From all the reviews, I had a hunch the essence of the book would be lost in translation. In many ways, the film captures the basic elements of interpersonal abuse and perseverance.
Courtesy of Lionsgate

What is missing from the film is the bigger picture.

The institutional dynamics of mistreatment, what stood out most to me in the novel, were essentially missing from the film. Focusing solely on interpersonal transgressions allows us to be saddened and outraged while distancing ourselves from the abuse Precious experienced. It happened to her. Other people were the perpetrators. Had the institutional, systemic examples of oppression been included in the movie, we would have been pushed to go beyond what Precious’ parents did to her and would have been made more aware of how our very own systems played a role in failing her. Push revealed, through the lens of Precious and her classmates, how institutions were failing young people in 1980s Harlem. Perhaps some of that depth was lost through the singular focus on Precious in the film version, whereas the novel allowed us to get to know the intricate stories of the classmates.

The most compelling example of this omission of institutional dynamics is that in the novel, Precious tells the nurses who tend to her- after the birth of her first child at the age of 12- that her own father was also the father of her baby. In that instant, Precious’ life should have changed. I am not naïve enough to say that it would have been all roses, but someone should have intervened. The same tragedy occurred after the birth of Precious’ second child. She reported, at the age of 16, that her father was the father of her baby. To the best of my knowledge, registered nurses are mandated reporters required to report abuse of a minor. Furthermore, the novel describes how Precious’ seeks help from the hospital when she returns after being discharged that day.

The fight with her mother leads her back, but she is met with neglect and told to go to a shelter. A minor, still bleeding from delivery, and her several-day-old baby are directed towards a shelter in the dead of winter. I am not suggesting that any of these individuals has something against Precious’ personally. I am also not suggesting that these institutions- the hospital or social services- should have poured all of their resources into this one situation. But I can’t help but think that something more could have been done. Why do we have these institutions if not to serve us in some way? More specifically, if not to serve the least of us- children?

The film not only omits some of these key pieces of information, but it also distorts them to suggest that Precious does not want help. When talking to her principal before being suspended from school, the film dialogue includes an inquiry about what is going on in the home after which Precious becomes belligerent. No such inquiry exists in the book. While the principal suggested she might visit the home to talk to Precious’ mother (as she also does in the film) that is far from a genuine interest in trying to understand how home life contributed to Precious’ second pregnancy and below grade level academic performance. In the novel, this example was not the first time that the education system failed Precious.

A child who is seven and sits in the back of the classroom all day- literally- and urinates on herself would be a red flag for an intervention of some kind, right? A parent teacher conference, a referral to a social worker, and possibly a subsequent Independent Education Plan might be in order. However when this example occurred in the novel, and Precious’ mother did not respond to the school, the principal concluded that the teacher should focus on students who want to learn. What does it say about our supposed equalizer called the public education system when a child who is clearly troubled is neglected so blatantly? I understand that then and now schools, disproportionately those who serve black and brown children, are under-resourced and lack funding. However, those responses in and of themselves are excuses for these institutional failings. They do not explain away what happened to Precious, they actually strengthen the argument that children are being left behind and the institution of education is not doing enough to meet their needs.

Some might argue that it is not the schools place to fix what is broken in the home. I am not suggesting that the schools re-parent. However, I am suggesting that perhaps the education system working in collaboration with social services could have intervened in a situation like Precious’ to allow her more of an opportunity to learn and thrive. Call me a dreamer. That’s what I thought civilized societies attempted to do- set up institutions to foster individual growth for the larger betterment and common good. At least that is what we have implicitly and explicitly attempted to do through the existence of entities such as the foster care system, mandated reporting or national programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The film saddened me not only because it highlights the atrocities of abuse but also because it shines a light on how little we valued Precious’ life. I say “we,” because people make up institutions. There was something about the systems that Precious came in contact with that did not see or value her enough to truly serve her. To my knowledge, we cannot choose our parents. It is our hope that parents foster growth in their children in a positive way, but we cannot mandate such behavior. However, we do have control over the institutions in our society- their aims, scopes and resources. We are the engines that keep institutions thriving and set their course. It’s convenient for us to acknowledge institutional failings when they cause tragedies such as the Clemmons’ police shooting and Huckabee’s commutation of his sentence. However, it would behoove us to be aware of institutional dynamics in proactive rather than reactive ways.

Precious was abused by her parents and abused by her society. I like the analogy used by Crossroads that institutional racism is the systems that kick the butts of people of color. Precious was struck down by the systems of education, social service, and the media. The systemic media oppression came in the form of colorism and the reification of Western ideals of beauty. Precious’ parents’ transgressions were personal, but the others were systemic. Taking care to understand the distinctions between various levels of oppression can help focus energy to combat such transgressions.

We Americans love a rugged-individual-triumphs-over-adversity story. I understand why this aspect of the novel shone through. My hunch is that had the institutional dynamics been highlighted in the movie, indicting all of our societal institutions and us, the film would have received even more scathing reviews. Yet, in my opinion, when you leave out the bigger picture, there is no accountability. Sure, you feel sorry for Precious and victims of abuse perhaps spurring gratitude for your own blessings. But that response remains purely individual.

My reaction after reading the book was that I needed to work for systemic change to mitigate the chances that other children could fall through the cracks. I considered increasing my volunteer work and thinking how I could leverage my community involvement to support institutional growth and change. My hope was that the film would engender a similar reaction in others perhaps creating a swell of activism. While it drew attention to the realities of abuse, as is often the case with books-turned-film, it fell short of living up to the depth present in the novel.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D. teaches Abnormal Psychology, Understanding Race, Psychology of Racism, Middle School Girls in Social Science and Illinois Wesleyan University. She spearheaded the GO-GIRL mentoring program to foster math and science interest among adolescent girls in the Bloomington-Normal community. She has received the community's Athena Award and the Pantagraph's "20 Under 40" honor for her local leadership. Kira earned her Ph.D. from University of Michigan.

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" . . . According to this film, if you’re a lucky black woman, a white man will rescue you from the clutches of evil black men, which is why white male critics are slobbering all over this film, giving it standing ovations and awards every day. Even white critics at hip places like The Rolling Stone, a place where Elvis gets credit for “changing American music.” This reminded me of Alice Walker’s appeal to white men to rescue black women, printed in a London newspaper and Steven Spielberg’s comment that when he read The Color Purple all he could do think of was rescuing Celie, the abused heroine (while he has yet to make a movie about the Celies among his ethnic group).
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