Archive for January, 2010

2nd January
2010
written by Mad Cow

Precious

(Rated R for child abuse, including sexual assault, and pervasive language)

Mad Cow’s rating: 3 ½ cowbells

And

Blind Side

(Rated PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references)

Mad Cow’s rating: three cowbells

Precious has been dubbed “a great American film” (Roger Ebert) and “an impeccably acted piece of trash” (Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine). Many Black people that I know are refusing to see it (in a way perhaps because of Ebert’s take on its Americanism). I think it’s an excellent movie that simply cannot live up to any expectation that it will tell a whole story rather than just a slice of life.

Brilliantly portray by Gabourney “Gabby” Sidibe, Precious is a Black teenager whose life has been nothing but misery. Abused and raped all of her life, she is mother to her father’s child and pregnant with a second child sired by him. Her brutal mother Mary (Mo’Nique) blames her for stealing her husband. On top of that, she is tremendously obese and her unchanging closed defiant expression suggests arrogance and lack of intelligence simultaneously. She is an object of mockery.

Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Geoffrey Fletcher, the movie was produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. We follow Precious as she is helped by Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) a teacher in a special school (Each One Teach One). Eventually Precious arrives at a better place, although we know that she will likely face more misery in the future.

Precious’ daydreams about a glamorous self in the spotlight, dressed to the hilt and loved by an attractive young man, accentuate her as the young girl that she is. In the dreams, Precious is the same obese self, only happy, applauded, and loved. At that age I never imagined myself as myself, but way more like Audrey Hepburn. Precious has integrity. Her one fantasy of herself as blonde and thin is one with which most American women, if they told the truth, could identify. Sidibe is marvelous in letting us see inside this girl’s psyche and understanding of herself.

Ms. Rain is a lesbian who takes Precious in for a while and introduces her to her partner. Significantly, Precious contemplates how it hasn’t been “homos” who have abused and tortured her. Likewise, her social worker (Maria Carey) works to find out whether Precious must move back into her mother’s home, which would preserve her mother’s continuing welfare check. Both actors do a good job of portraying compassion without sentimentality, hope without denial. Mary’s mother comes closest to depicting pure evil and a stereotypical “welfare mother,” a weak, selfish and mean woman. Much turns on whether sympathy is evoked by Mary’s expression of neediness and desolation, not an excuse, but a turn that indicates a person rather than a “type.”

Ironically, The Blind Side, based on the true story of the rise of Ravens’ player Michael Oher, reads like a fairy tale. It’s a fun movie that, like many American movies, makes the story of a black person be about a white person. Sandra Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, who, along with her husband (Tim McGraw) and her children (well played by very cute Jae Head and Lily Collins) take Michael (Quinton Aaron) into their home and eventually become his legal guardians.

Like the fictional Precious, Michael’s life has been oppressive and although he has been accepted into the Christian school attended by the Tuohy children, he has nowhere to live. They get him a tutor (Kathy Bates) and Leigh Anne is key in teaching him how to play football (a fictional element added to the movie). The movie is a showcase for Bullock to play a steel magnolia and she does it well. Aaron is ok in his role but his part isn’t much. The Tuohys do not become advocates for welfare reform or drug treatment centers or anything about the wider world, but they did do a good thing and the movie is fun.

Neither movie addresses the “big picture,” such as the conditions of poverty and oppression and what we as a nation can do about them. The Blind Side emphasizes the much-touted theme of “whites saving blacks” so popular in American film. Speilberg’s Amistad, in which most of the black people don’t even speak, comes to mind. Yet another theme in movies is the individual story. Winfrey has always focused on telling stories that evoke empathy and highlight the exceptional and perhaps, to the optimistic, paths to possibilities. Both movies are compelling, evoking empathy and understanding on an individual level. Do they increase interracial understanding or solidify stereotypes? Probably both, depending on the viewer.

A fundamental problem is that there aren’t enough stories “out there” depicting textured, varied African American characters and culture. Doug Atchison directed the terrific film Akeelah and the Bee, in which Laurence Fishburne plays an English professor who tutors a young girl (Keke Palmer) for a national spelling bee. It took a while to get it produced since Atchison held out when major studios asked that the tutor be a white guy. And so it is. Another wonderful film, light but fun, is Love and Basketball. Likewise, the part of a devoted intellectual violin restorer in The Red Violin was played by Black actor Samuel L. Jackson. Seeing more Black women and men in roles like this, and in all kinds of movies, would make Precious one among many.

YouTube notwithstanding, throughout the world movies depend on money, and the bottom line is enthusiastic movie-goers willing to plunk down the cash to see them. For the most part, especially in America, what the public gets is the common denominator. Thus, most kids’ movies are about boys because girls will go to boy movies but not vice versa. In the case of movies about Black people in general and African Americans in particular, this means stereotypes and typical themes, and a narrow range. This is a real shame, but boycotting good movies that do come down the pike is, in my view, not the best response. But I do love the movies.

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