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I have a problem with "Precious"

I saw "Precious," the movie about the obese, illiterate, pregnant (by her for the second time) teenager's road to humanity, a few weeks ago. The story is harsh (see more below), the acting for the most part is brutally realistic, the racism is overwhelming, and maybe - just maybe - there is a positive point to be made.

By the way, yes, I said "the racism."

Let me start with the story itself, so I can get this out of the way: if it were a similar story dealing with beautiful white women set in a trashy South, it would have been aired on the Lifetime Movie channel (all-women-in-distress-all-the-time). Maybe it's a sign of our stereotypical cultural reality that a movie about fat black women (or Jewish women, too) probably wouldn't be touched by LTM; I don't know. Mo'nique may have given the performance of her life, but rather than find her credible, I couldn't lose the image of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford beating up on her daughter. The reading teacher reeked of every teacher-as-savior stereotype, as did the reading student "types" who were Precious's classmates. Precious's attempts at a real life are thwarted at every turn: the bitchy mother who plays the victim with so much oil in her voice even as she beats the crap out of her daughter; the impotent Grandmother who can do nothing more than sigh and bestow sad glances on her granddaughter and great-granddaughter, standing by as the abuse escalates; the overwhelmed social worker who - in the end - really has nothing to offer; Precious's never-seen bio-dad (I refuse to call him her "father") who has gifted his daughter with incest, children and HIV.

And now to the point: I was miserably uncomfortable with the movie. I cringed at the hideous vision of the Black welfare queen mother, sitting on her butt watching soaps and game shows while brilliantly and lucidly going out of her way to avoid working so that she can collect welfare checks off the backs of her children even as she beats her children into merciless physical and psychological submission, even as she belittles and demeans her daughter into believing that the daughter's only redemption lies in working the welfare system (note: in her most conniving moments, the mother's voice sounds highly educated; if these are nothing more than "street smarts," she's had one hell of an education). The only wise Black woman is Precious's grandmother who is raising Precious's child (who has Down Syndrome).

I felt like I was witnessing the Black version of the worst anti-Semitic propaganda movie straight out of Hitler's machinery. I was upset to think that (White) viewers would join Rush Limbaugh/Bob Grant fan clubs because the story line fed right into their racist musings.

A personal aside: I was also very angry with the illiteracy issue because when I was in college - back in the last century - we education majors spent many hours trying to teach inner-city students how to read. My junior high school students were terrorized by other students walking home after school. They were terrified that they would wind up at a particular high school because they knew they had no chance of a real education there. They had minimal family support. With sighs, frustration and a palpable sense of futility, the NYC education system sent young, naive, middle-class students like me into the schools, where we did everything we could to help the next generation become productive members of society and "Precious" is where we wind up decades later? I'm pissed.

So what was making me so uncomfortable? The storyline itself that feeds into hideous images of inner-city Black women and their relationships with their men and their children? The willingness of Black producers to release a movie that makes Bob Grant's rant sound like kindergarten primers? The sadness that years of inner-city student teaching done by the best, brightest and most energetic college students hadn't made a dent? The sense that inner-city life is - at best - hopeless and society is doomed?

Maybe - however - there's another way to approach the movie: Black writers and movie makers are saying that there is a serious problem in the inner-city Black community, and are demanding that someone stand up and say so publicly. Perhaps by endorsing the movie, Winfrey and Perry are taking a courageous stand, risking a wrath heaped upon Bill Cosby. If so, kol ha-kavod (Hebrew: all the honor) ... way to go.

But I wonder: is using a racially-charged sledgehammer the way to get it done? Is risking the gloating of the racists among us the best way to get the point across? I wish I had some answers, but sometimes I still feel like that windmill-tilting college student who truly believed that music and a good book held the answer to all the worlds' problems.


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