It’s tipped to win Oscars, yet Precious is black-trash porn designed to titillate Oprahites and Hollywood liberals.
Precious is a film about how disgusting poor black people are. The men rape their daughters and make them pregnant. The women are bitter, abusive, potty-mouthed and don’t shave their armpit hair. The kids are fat and dumb. They all eat pigs’ trotters (with the hairs still on them) and fried chicken. Loads of fried chicken. They steal it from takeout joints; they eat it while walking in the street; it stains their mouths and clothes; they vomit it up again into dustbins. Hmm-mm, they loves their fried chicken, yessir.
But it’s okay, because this isn’t a film made by racists who want to show us how disgusting poor black people are. It’s a film made by influential, middle-class black people who want to show us how disgusting poor black people are. Directed by Lee Daniels (who produced Monster’s Ball and directed Shadowboxer), and funded and enthusiastically promoted by Oprah Winfrey, Precious is designed not to make us hate poor black people (well, not all of them) but to make us pity them. So that’s all right then.
This is black trash porn. Set in Harlem in 1987 (and yet Precious daydreams about the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 – now that’s dumb, Mr Daniels), it tells the story of 16-year-old Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones (played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe), who already has one child by her father and is expecting another. She is morbidly obese and pretty much illiterate. She lives with her mother – spectacularly overplayed by comedian and talkshow host Mo’Nique – who is a welfare parasite, never leaves the apartment, and cares more for her mangy cats than she does for her ‘fat motherfucker’ of a daughter (sorry, but they’re her words).
At one level, Precious – based on the 1996 novel Push by Sapphire – is your average, super-patronising story of a dumb, fat, black girl from the ghetto being rescued by caring outsiders. The only twist to that traditional tale which belongs in the minstrels era is that Precious’s rescuers are not white. No, they’re light-skinned blacks. There’s the literacy teacher Ms Rain (Paula Patton), Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz) and social worker Mrs Weiss (Mariah Carey). The character of Ms Rain is the most revealing: she is extraordinarily beautiful, middle-class and a lesbian to boot, yet so brave that she frequently ventures into Harlem to teach the fat kids about the joys of writing down their feelings in journals. What, was Julie Andrews not available?
But at another level, there is something very contemporary about Precious: its pornographic focus on the way that poor black people allegedly live. I know and you know and everyone knows that there is poverty in Harlem and in other black communities in the US, and that as a consequence there is also ill-health and sometimes crime. But do we need close-up shots of pigs’ trotters boiling in a pan? Of Precious munching on chicken with the grease rolling down her chin? Of her mother – made to look really fat in ill-fitting leggings – dancing in front of a mirror, raising her arms so that the camera can linger on her armpit hair? (Mo’Nique has, of course, been nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars. The Academy is always immensely impressed when actresses grow their armpit hair.) In one scene the camera focuses on Mo’Nique’s behind as she runs up the stairs in the same way pervy BBC cameramen once chased after Anneka Rice, and it serves no other purpose than to say: ‘Look at this fat black woman’s arse. Isn’t it disgusting?’
This black poverty porn is designed to titillate. It’s a freakshow in which Sapphire, Daniels, Oprah and the rest pull back the curtain on what they imagine that poor, welfare-dependent black communities get up to in private. The focus on the characters’ flab, their foul language, their ignorance, their bad parenting skills – they refer to Precious’s first child as ‘Mongo’ because she has Down’s syndrome – paints a picture of a community that is utterly incapable of looking after itself and which clearly needs the caring agents of the state (Carey’s social worker, Kravitz’s listening nurse, Patton’s understanding teacher) to raise them up from their mental and emotional squalor.
And the way they are raised up is the most revealing thing of all: they do not liberate themselves of course (they’re too stupid), and they are not even rescued by serious education in the patronising way a character like Precious might have been 10 or 20 years ago. No, they are rescued by therapy – Precious by being taught to write down her feelings in a notepad, and her mother by having a bawling session at the social workers’ in which she reveals her own abuse and admits to her failures.
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In this sense, Precious offers an insight, albeit accidentally, into a profound shift that has taken place in America in recent decades, where black communities’ problems have come to be discussed in therapeutic rather than political or economic terms. As Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn argues, as American politics and society has changed since the 1960s, so the ‘Black Question’ has come to be understood, not in terms of ‘civil rights or black power’, but in ‘therapeutic terms’ as part of America’s ‘larger personal growth and self-esteem movements’ (1). The problem is not some communities’ lack of opportunity but their lack of self-esteem. They need, not internal ‘black power’, but external ‘empowerment’, preferably courtesy of Oprah Winfrey. So Precious ends up still living in shit, still eating that horrible chicken, still looking after ‘Mongo’, but she feels better about herself.
Hollywood has long struggled with its depiction of black characters. It’s given us the racist caricature of thuggish black men. It’s given us the image of the super-dignified black man (there’s an unwritten law that only Morgan Freeman can play American presidents). It has also given us the emotionally attuned black character who rescues white people from their insularism, right from the black servants who upbraided their white brattish charges in early Hollywood movies to Queen Latifah’s turn as ghetto nanny in the Steve Martin vehicle Bringing Down the House. But the new black character – poor, fat, dumb and in need of rescue by better blacks – is perhaps the worst of all. If Precious wins any Oscars next month it won’t be because it deserves them, but simply so that Hollywood can pat itself on the back for being so understanding about the self-esteem-challenged savages in its midst.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement - Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas - is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, WW Norton, 2001
Time for a serious debate about the welfare state
Has welfarism gone too far? Is it time to trim this massive machine? And more importantly, shouldn’t it be trimmed for the *right* reasons - that is, not in order to save the state money but as a way of protecting communities from the negative impact of constant welfarist intervention?
We’ll be debating these issues at the next session of our spiked drinks events at Portcullis House in London on Monday 3 June at 6.30pm. Find out more here.