Commentary: The problem with criticism of 'Precious'

The Miami HeraldNovember 27, 2009 

"I wanna say I am somebody. I wanna say it on subway, TV, movie, LOUD. I see the pink faces in suits look over top of my head. I watch myself disappear in their eyes... I talk loud but still I don't exist." — Precious

Not everyone is singing hosannas.

Indeed, though it is — maybe because it is — among the most critically-acclaimed movies of the year, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, has inspired a fierce backlash. Jack White on The Root.com (full disclosure: Jack and I worked together a few years ago at Hampton University) slammed it, unseen, as over-hyped and a waste of time.

Courtland Milloy of The Washington Post called it "a film of prurient interest that has about as much redeeming social value as a porn flick."

Armond White of nypress.com said it was more demeaning to black people than any film since D.W. Griffith's crudely racist Birth of a Nation in 1915.

And hiding behind the anonymity of a YouTube message board, some individual asked: "Who let this gorilla out of her enclosure."

None of which is surprising. It might even be said that the YouTube poster and the others are simply working opposite sides of the same street. Any time art tiptoes too closely to the tripwires of racial stereotype, one can expect it to fire indignation among defenders of the African-American image on the one hand and smug, racist graffiti from online half-wits on the other.

And Precious doesn't tiptoe, it stomps. At one point, we see the title character, a dark-skinned, morbidly obese Harlem girl, running down the street snacking from a stolen bucket of fried chicken. It's as if the storytellers challenged themselves to see how many stereotypes they could cram in. And if that were all there was to Precious, I might think the criticism justified.

It isn't, and I don't.

Precious is an ode to refusing to die. She is a girl struggling to live an unlivable life, 16 years old, illiterate, sexually abused by both parents, mother of two children (one with Down Syndrome) sired by her father, physically and verbally beaten down by her monster of a mother and yet, somehow unable to give in to the idea that she is nothing and her name, nobody.

She is that invisible girl, the one we decline to see because she doesn't look like Halle, enunciate like Condi, inspire like Oprah, doesn't ratify our faith in the inevitability of happy endings.

There are more of them than we would care to know. They are not just girls, not just poor, not just black.

They are incest victims in silent suffering, gay boys abandoned by their families, girls sold into prostitution by their mothers, 12 year olds at home caring for six year olds because nobody's seen the 35 year old in days.

They are high school graduates who cannot read their own diplomas. They are children -- our children -- failed by families and then failed again by overburdened social agencies whose job is to take up the slack, catch them before they fall. They are children we never see until it's a police lineup.

They do not appear in music videos. They are not shown in toothpaste commercials. They do not resemble the idealized, smiling, fresh-scrubbed and happy face beamed out to us on 500 channels 24/7.

No, they look like Precious, struggling to read, struggling to surmount or even survive, struggling to live the unlivable. And every once in awhile, doing it. There is a scene wherein Precious faces a mirror and sees her ideal looking back: beautiful, blonde, white. Then, in a later scene, she enters a building and there's a mirrored wall. And she looks and sees finally, only, herself.

In that juxtaposition of growth lies the soul of a remarkable film. If Jack White doesn't see it, that's fine. But one hopes the invisible children will. They'll find in it a rare reminder that they do, indeed, exist.

And that they are precious, too.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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