Revolution #189, January 17, 2010
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
The film Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire is a brave endeavor. It explores a rarely depicted reality for millions of women in our society, in particular the ways this brutal reality is experienced by Black women. The main character, Claireece Precious Jones, is an obese, dark-skinned young Black woman whose life has been a hell on earth of physical and sexual abuse.
The film looks unflinchingly at all Precious has suffered—raped by her father, pregnant with his second child, HIV positive, abused by her mother, subjected to disrespect from classmates and an uncaring school system. She feels, for good reason, invisible to the world. But, as Annie Day's review in Revolution newspaper put it, "The film also traces through a transformation for Precious. She is helped, nurtured and challenged by Blue Rain, a literacy teacher in a pre-GED program. And she is surrounded by young women like herself―some who are poor, formerly strung out young mothers, others who are beaten and cast out but all of them caring for each other in what is otherwise a largely uncaring world." (Revolution #184, November 29, 2009)
It's also beautifully made, with stirring and complex performances, putting you in the shoes of one of society's downcast and demonized. And, like powerful art, it is truly soul stirring.
Many, many people have welcomed this. Lines at theaters showing the film snaked out of the building and around corners. And commentary about the power of the impact of this film went on for weeks in print, on the radio and blogs.
The Controversy over Precious
The Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund received the following letter from a reader in prison:
But some have responded with sharp critiques of the film, saying it's like "ghetto porn" and contributes to negative stereotypes of Black people. One widely referenced critique is from Black author Ishmael Reed. In a lengthy review titled "Hollywood's Enduring Myth of the Black Male Sexual Predator: The Selling of Precious," Reed condemned the movie for both "demonizing Black men," and for having "the worst depiction of Black females I've ever seen." Reed also said, "I would argue that it [Precious] makes D.W. Griffith look like a progressive." (Griffith was the director of the film, Birth of a Nation, a glorification of the early 20th century KKK.) Reed also charged the film with "minstrelism."
The promotion of minstrelsy is a pervasive part of American culture—images that negate the humanity and real creativity of Black people, reducing them to stereotypes that reaffirm in the minds of whites their own sense of superiority. These take form today with things like the parade of pro athletes and rappers portrayed as mindless criminals and thugs or Black women being depicted as sexually promiscuous gold diggers. So concern about the portrayal of Black people is understandable. But does Precious do this? No. Precious takes people who are usually only depicted as stereotypes, hated and looked down at, if looked at at all—overweight, dark-skinned Black girls and women on welfare—and shows them as they are, full humans with complexity and humanity. In this way it contributes to understanding more deeply the depths of the oppression people like them face and the impacts of those stereotypes. This is the exact opposite of minstrelsy.
It would take reams to take apart all of Reed's argument, but the essence of what he says is that Precious was made by white people—with Black artists as fronts—to market negative images of Black men to white audiences.
From Reed's article: "[D]id Daniels direct Precious or is he really playing the flak catcher for this heinous project like [executive producers] Oprah Winfrey and [Tyler] Perry? When he went on the set to exercise his role as ‘director' did the white people who own the movie and provide the crew for this film call security? Hard to say."
He develops this further: "They [white people] want to peek behind the curtains of black life to seek confirmation that all of the myths they've heard about black life are true. Richard Wright said that ‘The Negro is America's metaphor.' More like America's anti-depressant. People who are miserable in their own lives getting off by consuming black depravity, a big business."
And towards the end of his article, Reed writes, "Will the ‘niche' audience for which this movie is intended ever become weary of the brothers being a symbol of universal male misogyny? The face on the bull's-eye at which disgruntled feminists from all ethnic groups aim their arrows, women who are scared to challenge the misogyny practiced by males who share their background? Judging from the box office receipts, maybe not."
What Reed Ignores, and Erases
First, Reed never once asks if the film reflects reality. He never asks what it is actually like for young women and girls—of all nationalities—who are raped and molested in our society. And the particular ways this impacts Black women who are doubly oppressed. He never suggests that these stories should be told. By making this solely about a "marketing strategy" to sell "images of Black male depravity," Reed erases the brutal and undeniable reality of what it means to walk the earth as a woman. In the U.S. alone, 1 in 4 women are raped, a woman is beaten by her partner every 15 seconds, 3 women are killed every day by lovers and husbands, and almost 220 children are sexually abused every day―most of them by a relative or family friend.
Reed even criticizes the Pulitzer prize winning play, Ruined, about rape in the Congo, for contributing to this demonization. (Rape was systematically used as a weapon of war in the Congo and this play depicts the harrowing reality. There are no comprehensive statistics, but hundreds of thousands of women were raped in the Congo in the last 10 years and this is continuing at a frightening rate. The play also alludes to the role of the West in fueling the conflict in order to gain control of coltan resources, which are used in electronic devices such as cell phones. (Raymond Lotta discusses this in his powerful, short video: The Rape of the Congo and Your Cell Phone, youtube.com/raymondlotta.)1
Now do something Ishmael Reed refuses to do—stop and think about the lived impact of those numbers. The dreams of young girls crushed and broken and the lifetimes of nightmares that fill young girls' sleep. And think what it means that on top of this, like Precious, women are told in a thousand ways that they brought this torment on themselves. Annie Day wrote, "The story of Precious is not an anomaly but a distillation." And this reality reflects how this is so.
Reed also ignores the way the film has touched many, many people, especially (though not only) thousands of Black women who responded to seeing the film by telling anyone who would listen their own stories of abuse. Across the country, on Internet forums, schools and theatre lobbies Revolution distributors have talked to people. Even if not experienced with the same extremity, many women said they felt Precious gave a window into what they experience.
Third, Reed erases and ignores the development and personhood of Precious. She confronts horrific sexual and physical abuse, illiteracy, being infected with AIDS by her father and more, but isn't broken by them. He ignores the relationships Precious forges with her classmates, and with her teacher, who nurture and challenge her. They develop bonds of friendship, respect, struggle, and caring. While the film does not go easy on the brutality Precious suffers—it also shows her with humor, humanity, curiosity, a vibrant imagination, intelligence, and heart. This is not some faceless victim. But not once does Reed talk about her this way.
Writing in Salon.com, Erin Aubry Kaplan made an insightful point about why a young woman like Precious would be ignored and the importance of the film in telling her story, "Far from being some exploitative spectacle for whites, the hard-hitting tale of Precious is a film for blacks and a challenge to drop our own emotional armor and embrace a real-life story we have been minimizing for a long time—that of a big, black, sullen-faced, illiterate girl who lives in the depths of the ghetto and in all likelihood will stay there. She is the bogeywoman not just of white society but of black society, too, especially for a middle class that's been trying for years to rescue its ‘negative' racial image from the likes of Precious. But while we in the real world preach community ad nauseam, it's girls—and boys—like her who remain at the bottom of the well. In making the bottom dweller eminently human, the movie forces blacks to assess their own humanity. And I found myself squirming in the seat more than once."
The other thing that stands out in Reed's article is the way he talks about women generally. He refers to young Black women professors who have commented positively on Precious at the web zine The Root as "...[T]he types who are using university curriculum to get even with their fathers." He suggests that the poet and author Sapphire and the filmmaker Lee Daniels have falsely remembered histories of abuse. He hardly ever mentions a woman without saying something about her looks. Mariah Carey, who plays a welfare case worker, is "firm," "the camera favors" Paula Patton, who plays Precious' teacher, Blue Rain; he says three times that the actress who plays Precious is 350 pounds (a fact which he is clearly bothered by), and he describes one of the film's financial backers as "manicured" and "buffed," and one who "doesn't go lightly on the eye shadow." And in linking Oprah Winfrey's backing of this film with what he sees as her other efforts to demean Black men, including backing and starring in The Color Purple (which he calls a "black incest product"), he quotes someone as saying, "like her addiction to food," Oprah can't help demonizing Black men.
His defense of patriarchy also bubbles over in relation to gay people. Here he gets the basic facts of the film wrong. He says a male nurse, John John, played by Lenny Kravitz, is gay. In actuality, the film makes clear that John John is straight, but Reed's vision is so distorted he can't seem to fathom a soft-spoken male character who isn't gay. He goes on to say Precious is "a film in which gays are superior to Black male heterosexuals," creating some sort of patriarchal totem pole and then seeking to determine where "his group" sits in relation to the top.
Not everyone who has raised concerns about the film contributing to stereotypical portrayals of Black people or the demonization of Black men would uphold this kind of straight-up misogyny. But you have to ask why Reed's argument goes there and why his argument has resonated.
The Reality of Emasculation, Its Source and What Is and Isn't the Solution
"Women are not breeders. Women are not lesser beings. Women are not objects created for the sexual pleasure of men. Women are human beings capable of participating fully and equally in every realm of human endeavor. When women are held down, all of humanity is held back. Women must win liberation, and they can only be liberated through the revolutionary transformation of the world and the emancipation of all of humanity, and through being a powerful motive force in that revolution."
Is there a reason to be concerned about the portrayal of Black men in popular culture? Absolutely. America was built on this—during slavery, the spectre of Black men as sexual predators was used to justify brutal subjugation. During the Jim Crow era, it was used to justify hundreds of lynchings of Black men. Birth of a Nation, which we mentioned above, is a celebration of the KKK, which was responsible for thousands of those lynchings and for creating a situation of literal terror for Black people. It was given a world-premiere at the White House and a ringing endorsement by the president at that time, Woodrow Wilson. (Wilson was reported to have commented that "it is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.")
Today, everywhere you turn are images of "young Black super-predators" and "irresponsible gangsters"—reality TV shows like COPS and even sports reports on ESPN are full of depictions of Black men as criminals and thugs. And the only "positive" images offered up are of Black men as cops, soldiers and Navy Seals. We don't need any of this!
And this system has sought to "emasculate" Black men throughout history. Literally, in the case of many lynchings where Black men were tortured (in the case of Claude Neal who was accused of murdering a white woman, his penis and testicles were cut off and he was forced to eat them before being barbarically killed2). And figuratively. Under slavery, any white man connected to a plantation could rape any female slave on that plantation, and her husband or brother or father or other loved ones could do nothing about it (to say nothing of what women slaves faced if they fought back). And Black men were treated like children, forced to scrape and shuffle, and bow their heads at any white person who crossed their path, with the threat of death if they didn't.
One of the examples Reed cites is the Central Park Jogger case. In 1989, five Black and Latino youth were falsely charged of raping a white woman in Central Park. The media and authorities whipped up an ugly racist fervor around this case, painting these youth as if they were uncontrollable animals. Despite DNA evidence that showed none of them were linked to the crime, they were convicted and spent years in prison on these false charges.
Reed seizes on a poem written by Sapphire at the time called Wild Thing, where she writes about the rape from the alleged rapists' perspective. It was controversial at the time—many charged that she was attempting to "humanize" the alleged rapists because she painted a real and powerful sense of their anger, and from where it arose though she didn't idealize or uphold them. It is true, and a problem, that she, like most people at the time, did not question their guilt. This is a necessary thing to learn from, but we encourage readers to look up the poem, as she is attempting to speak to an important contradiction, and was not out to "demonize Black men" or make great financial gains, as Reed cynically states.
What Is the Source of All This?
The perpetrator of all this is not women. And it's certainly not women who have spoken out about the oppression they've faced as women. The capitalist system is what's really responsible for the oppression of Black people, and it's what's holding down all of humanity. The brutal subjugation of Black people has been built into the very fabric of U.S. society from the beginning. The system of white supremacy has gone through many changes, but it has NOT gone away and has in fact been integral to the economy, the politics, the culture and the psychology of America since Day One. It was on the basis of the enslavement of Black people that the wealth of this country, both that of the slaveholders in the South and of the merchants and factory owners of the North, was built up. The exploitation of Black sharecroppers was a pillar of continued development of the U.S. economy during the Jim Crow period. And Black workers being limited to the bottom tier of the U.S. work force was a source of superprofits for U.S. capital post-WW2. Today, the other side of the images of Black people as inner city thugs and welfare queens is a reality based on the very operation of the capitalist system, which has sucked the jobs out of the cities across the country, as capital moves around the world in search of higher rates of profit.
Along with this grinding exploitation has been denial of the very humanity of Black people, both men and women! This may seem obvious, but when Reed looks at it, the heart of what he sees is the denial of Black manhood. In this view, depicting the ways Black men participate in the subjugation of Black women is offensive and harmful because it undercuts their ability to be unfettered dominators of "their" women.
Striving to enable Black men to assert their "manhood" in a society saturated in the violent and systematic oppression of women will only lead to keeping this system with these relations intact. What meaning does manhood even have in this society except one that involves the assertion of strength and power over women, whatever the intention? It means asserting the privileges that historically are granted men and in this case, Black men wanting their share of that privilege. It would be as if a slave were to assert his/her right to be a master—as opposed to being free.
And far too often, this "privilege" of being a dominator is upheld and even celebrated. Oppressed men of all races are conditioned and taught to act as the agents of the oppression of women and to gain gratification from this. Men are told, and take up the view themselves, that women are inferior beings over whom they have dominance, who exist for their sexual pleasure or to serve them as mothers or wives. These ideas have deep roots in the centuries old development of human societies into class societies with the oppression of women as one of the most essential divides.
From Annie Day's review: "We are told and taught that the family is a divinely inspired eternal institution, forged out of love and caring. In fact, the form of the family has changed over the centuries.
"Our ancestors traced the lineage through the mother and lived in kinship units that did not involve relations of domination, ownership or suppression. Only with the development of society's ability to produce a surplus over what was necessary for mere survival, and the rise of private property and the division into classes on that basis, did the modern family arise. Once that had happened, it began to matter which child belonged to which father so the surplus wealth, or lack thereof, could be passed down. The family enforced a division of labor where the woman was responsible for providing the man with children and the raising of children, and the women and children were the property of the man."
One of the things that confuses people is that patriarchal structures and views are often maintained and defended by women as well. Mothers are expected to prepare their daughters for the role society expects them to play. In many semi-feudal societies, the mother-in-law plays a dominant, and often direct, role over her son's wife. Or in many Black families, grandmothers have often been seen as, and celebrated for, playing the role of an enforcer (for an example of this, go back to Richard Pryor's routines about his grandmother and the switch). Nonetheless, all this is still part of, and part of maintaining, the overall patriarchal setup.
Precious depicts this powerfully and painfully. Mary Jones, Precious' mother, abuses Precious—sexually, physically and mentally. In the film, she is monstrous, and through the story you come to understand the monstrous choices she faced—if she was going to keep her man, she would have to exchange her daughter. This cruel choice then shaped everything about who she was. Bound up with this, she adopted the view that since she'd been sexually humiliated, and fucked over for someone else's pleasure, she deserved the right to humiliate and fuck over her daughter for her sexual pleasure. This is a calculation, it is about property and domination in our most intimate spaces. And it drives all too much of male sexual behavior, even as in this case it is clearly shown animating a woman abuser.
All this is actively inculcated in, and far too often taken up by, people today. Through the increasingly violent pornography where women are literally empty shells to be demeaned and degraded for men's sexual pleasure and through the ceaseless speculation about prominent women's baby bumps in celebrity magazines—women are told they should find their meaning in being a sexual commodity or breeder for men. And in books, magazines and advice columns—women are told, often by other women, to shape their lives around attracting and keeping a man.
This comes down in particularly sharp and painful ways among Black people because "the traditional two-parent family" has, in many ways, broken down—most Black children are raised by single mothers. But this too is a product of the workings of the system itself—the economic base for two-parent families was undercut with the outflow of jobs internationally to further exploit people around the globe, there was an influx of drugs consciously directed at the Black community, then brutal repression leading to there being almost a million Black men in prison today. On top of this, there is an ideological assault that turns this situation on its head and blames Black people themselves for these conditions which are not of their making. You hear this poison trumpeted all over—that the source of the problems in the Black community is irresponsible Black fathers. And it's even coming from the commander-in-chief of the American empire, Barack Obama, blaming "absent Black fathers" for the way this system has written off now generations of youth, unable and unwilling to provide jobs or decent education or any kind of future at all.
Lots of people think the solution to all this is "strong male role models and father figures." And many have pointed to Precious in that light as well—that it's harmful because, whether it depicts reality or not, these are characters that shouldn't be highlighted. But art like this, art that depicts the oppression of women—and the role men play in that—should have, as one of its effects, the posing to such men of the real human cost of this oppression and should propel them to not only renounce "their part" in it but to fight against it.
Here we'll quote a special issue of Revolution, "The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System, and the Revolution We Need": "Black children don't need ‘male role models'—they need an end to the crippling conditions that hem them in at every point. They need revolution, and they need revolutionary role models, women no less than men. They need to see men and women who model the mutual respect and equality that reflects the world we are fighting for: a whole new liberated world where girls grow up strong and without fear of being raped, degraded or abused, where no child is ever deemed ‘illegitimate,' and where men―like everyone else―find their worth in contributing to the betterment of all of humanity through the revolutionary transformation of all society rather than by getting in on even a little of the oppression of this nightmare world."
Any other approach to this will only strengthen the chains that keep us all bound.
What It Will Really Take for Humanity to Triumph
In many ways, particularly for men, the oppression of women and whether you seek to completely abolish or to preserve the existing property and social relations and the 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.
Bob Avakian, A Horrible End or An End to the Horror?, p. 140
A final point in all this: one of the controversies around Precious has been whether the film ends on a high note. And here we need to unravel some things.
Ishmael Reed quotes writer Courtland Milloy: "Strangest of all, many reviewers felt the movie ended on a high note. Time, for instance, wrote that Precious ‘makes an utterly believable and electrifying rise from an urban abyss of ignorance and neglect.' Excuse me, the movie ends with the girl walking the streets, babies in her arms, having just learned that her father has died of AIDS—but not before infecting her."
But this ignores, or doesn't recognize, the way Precious does triumph on one level. This is captured in the gift from Precious of an orange scarf to a small girl with a black eye, also beaten by her family, whose friendship Precious had earlier spurned. Precious found this orange scarf discarded, though in her dreams it was a gift from a Black fairy godmother and in the film, it is ever present—a piece of brightness in her otherwise dark life. She passes this on to help this little girl make it through. Precious is determined to move forward, she does not return to the familiar confines of her mother's dark apartment, she does not return to the brutal and bloody as so many women in our society do. She strikes out—into the unknown and uncertain. As the film closes, we are certain her life will be a struggle, but we also know she will not go back to what was.
It is the case however that this alone will not lead her to the victory we hope for her. And here is where there is bitterness at the film's end—but it is a bitterness made of the world today, and the film is an honest depiction of that. One of the things we heard from many people in interviews or on online forums after the film was that this showed that making good choices can get you out of a bad situation. This is not true, and we don't think this is the lesson to draw from this powerful story.
Annie Day's review spoke to this: "[T]his situation is not a product of one individual's poor choices or irresponsible behavior. People do not choose the society into which they are born. They do not choose the structure of that society's traditional relations between different groups of people―relations in which people of one gender, or one race or nationality, possess privileges and lord it over the others. They encounter these relations from even before they begin to speak, so that it can seem as natural as the air they breathe―but they do not choose them. They do not choose to be in a situation where everything―and everyone―is seen as a means to profit and more profit by those who have power, and where this outlook saturates and permeates everyone else. All this is thrust upon them, and they must find their position within it.
"The only real choice we have is whether to resist this, to make our peace with it, or to respond to being demeaned by reaching back, demeaning and brutalizing others. To either fight against being made meaningless as ‘black grease,' or to try to get your own piece of that domination."
Reed's answer to this choice is clear and wrong, but a radically different answer is required from all those who want to see the potential "of Precious girls everywhere" realized.
We need a revolution. The most radical revolution of millions bringing into being a radically different system. A total revolution, aiming for the emancipation of all of humanity—putting an end to a situation where people are crushed down and crushed under by the millions, putting an end to class divisions, the oppression of whole peoples and the supremacy of others and the brutal and ubiquitous subjugation of women—literally half of humanity.
As a part of fighting for, and fueling, that revolution, we need to be bringing forward today a radically different morality—new ways of being and of treating each other. Where instead of an ideal of asserting one's "manhood," there is an ideal of asserting and expressing one's humanity. A morality of equality and respect among different nationalities and cultures, between men and women. An appreciation and encouragement of the outpouring of bitterness at what it means to be oppressed in the world today, tsunamis of speak-outs about the otherwise all too hidden pains and abuses. A fostering of friendship among men and women, boys and girls without seeing each other as commodities to be gained or gotten over on. Sexual relations that explore the full range of human pleasure explored mutually by fully present equals. A spirit of debate and struggle, curiosity and learning, imaginings and resistance—all as part of really building a movement for revolution to change the whole world once and for all.
1. See also www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/nov/14/congo.chrismcgreal and www.vday.org/drcongo/background#1. [back]
2. This case is discussed powerfully in Bob Avakian’s talk, Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About, youtube.com/revolutiontalk. [back]
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.