Beyond Precious: Real Change for the Urban Poor

Last month, I received an email inviting me to vote for films nominated to receive an NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) image award. The email stated the film Precious had been nominated for a NAACP image award in several categories, including best picture, best actress, best supporting actress, and best director. “Image, advancement of a people; advancement, image; image, advancement,” I thought.

Like many, I have questions about the film.  Does Precious further the advancement of “colored” people–or better yet—the advancement of all people, regardless of color? Or does the film merely shock viewers, while leaving existing social, economic, and political arrangements unquestioned, unchallenged, and thus intact? What images of a past, present, or future does the film present that might inspire people to work for social changes that will advance not just “colored” people,” not just poor people, but all of us?

Through their endorsement of the film, the film’s producers—billionaire talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and multi-millionaire actor, writer, producer Tyler Perry—imply that the film enlightens and thus uplifts many.  But I am not fully convinced of this. Indeed, I am troubled by many of the images projected in the film:

  • Images of Precious (a 16 –year- old girl living in poverty-stricken Harlem in the 1980s) being brutally attacked by her mother, repeatedly raped by her father, and impregnated twice by him
  • Images of Precious giving birth to her daughter, who is actually her half-sister, on her mother’s apartment floor— a child whom Precious calls “Mongo,” which is short for Mongoloid or someone with Downs’ Syndrome
  • The image of Precious stealing and then eating a bucket of chicken all at one time, without sufficient exploration of  how feelings of desperation and deprivation generated by poverty and others’ indifference to its effects would drive some people to gorge food to the point of making themselves sick
  • Precious’s deferred dreams seem to “just sag like a heavy load,” as Langston Hughes wrote,   even as she receives an “A-” in English when she can barely recite the alphabet – a story line that gestures toward but doesn’t fully explore how the school has arguably perpetuated Precious’s illiteracy.

Most troubling for me is the film’s underlying message of “individualism,” which is conveyed through the omission of certain historical events, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs in poor urban communities in the 1970 s and 1980s. How could a film covering life in poverty- stricken Harlem in the 1980s fail to cover such things? The loss of manufacturing jobs under de-industrialization had a devastating effect on employment, family structure, neighborhood resources, and neighborhood cohesion within these communities, as William Julius Wilson has documented so well. Without this historical information, viewers are left with only Precious’s individual characteristics to focus on —her abuse, illiteracy, obesity, family dysfunction, self-loathing, self-isolation, and personal blame and guilt. These conditions, devastating as they are, reflect social problems, not just personal ones.

My fear is that such intense individualism will encourage the idea that the best thing others can do to help  people like Precious is to leave them alone to resolve their personal problems on their own. Such beliefs uphold the status quo and overlook systemic factors that continue to limit the life chances of the urban poor. Consider how our understanding of Precious’s story would be different if the film acknowledged these systemic factors:

  • The loss of supermarkets, which has been linked to the urban poor’s declining health
  • Transportation constraints that make it difficult for the urban poor to travel to and from school, the doctor’s office, and to jobs located in suburban or rural areas.

To move beyond the shock and discomfort that many said they felt when viewing Precious, to feel empowered and provide empowerment, we must eliminate these and other systemic constraints within America’s poor urban communities.  And then, in subsequent years, we may collectively receive an award for best performance, and maybe one for best image. But awards that come at the expense of the dignity and advancement of America’s urban poor do not represent a fair or ethical trade and should be seen as what they are: empty platitudes.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Beyond Precious: Real Change for the Urban Poor

  1. Dr. Sisco says:

    Dr. Narcisse is on point here about the problems inherent in attempting to bring a powerful book to the screen as ‘entertainment.’ I have taught this book many times, and have written papers on the novel. “Precious” does need to be placed in its historic context – the Reagan years of “ketchup as a vegetable,” “the welfare Queen”, and the Clinton administration war on Aid to Dependant Families.
    Precious eating a buket of chicken? Overkill – but what does this say about the emotional needs of many left behind in the cities?
    When I teach the book, many students respond to the character’s lack of self-esteem, and her push for literacy. Then I just go down the list of whys.
    Great topic – I can’t wait to include the film with the book.

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  2. Alisa says:

    Thanks for this post, Denise. I haven’t seen _Precious_, but my suspicion about the film’s emphasis on _self_-determination has something to do with Oprah’s having produced it (given that the film adaptation of Morrison’s _Beloved_ — again, a film I have not seen — had little to do with the economic and political disenfranchisement of slaves and everything to do with Oprah’s talk show brand of self-help). In other words, I see _Precious_ as another version of _Beloved_ — perhaps the reason why the economic realities/historical shifts in labor are absent from film.

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  3. Edmund Ryczaj says:

    I personally enjoyed the film, i watched it with my girlfriend. She was rather disturbed by some of the scenes portrayed in the film. However, I found it to be very interesting coming from my viewpoint. I also thought the film portrayed how life was for some kids and made me think how nice of a live I am fortunate enough to live. I always thought I had an “okay” life but after seeing the way Precious was treated it made me realize that my life could be a lot worse….

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  4. Chelsea Pennington says:

    One could argue there is no need for sociological context to understand this girls phlight. It is a sad, but well known notion that urban schools often times are lacking resources to properly educate students. Other aspects of the poor urban community also fail to serve in the progress of its members (i.e.: transportation, lack of industry). People know this. Including these other facts in “Precious” would be superfluous. The producers of the movie created it to have shock value, because that is what sells at the box office. The story is complex enough without unnecessary background information.

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  5. Not Really says:

    The film is based on a book entitled “Push.” The author, a write/poet by the name of Saphire, wrote the character of Precious as combination of people she knew in real life when she was a social worker.

    This is a book written by a black woman about the issues of a certain segment of black women. Watch the movie or read the book before you comment.

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  6. kris says:

    @ everyone who didn’t see the movie; watch it, it won’t be the worst money you ever spend.

    Ms. Narcisse, any follow up comments? i mean, if Monique wins an Oscar for this (which she still might for an incredible performance) it’s only going to get more attention.

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  7. Gina Caracci says:

    Although I have not seen the movie in its entirety, I have seen small clips and segments. As powerful as this movie is supposed to be, I do feel at some points it is stereotypical of an era not just related to one race, but many who fell to hard times. Unfortunately, Precious’s story is one that reflected many women in this time; however, the movie industry itself is a complex organization that specifically chooses what points to depict. Ways in which this industry relates to complex organizations: scripts are formally written down, edited and reviewed by committees. This industry has a huge gross yearly and relates to complex organizations because its employees are paid and then those employees pay their own employees and the funds trickle down. Lastly, the movie industry constitutes a complex organization because it has film production companies, studios, screenwriting, pre and post production, festivals and mass distribution. The movie industry is a beneficial example of a complex organization because it has segmented unions, various levels of power and it performs every task necessary to continually profit.

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  8. Aaron Hughes-Ware says:

    Doctor Narcisse, you portayed the issues and benfits thats this movie brings to our society in a very valid and powerful way. There can be other forms and genres to get the point across to our people without the vulgarity, violence, and graphic images. Though many feel this is “real life” so to speak, there are definitely more effective ways to do this.

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  9. Kathy Newman says:

    I think you’ve written a provocative essay about the film. I think one of the effects Precious is to provoke this very discussion and debate about these larger social issues. Thank you for addressing them so thoughtfully.

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  10. Vicki Lindner says:

    When I saw the movie, in Denver, there wasn’t a single black person in the audience. Very few big release movies focus on incest. That Precious was raped by her father and abused by her mother who didn’t defend her is an important psychological theme for our culture, where many girls, from many different neighborhoods, including wealthy ones, meet the same fate. But I can imagine that it would be disturbing to African Americans to see a film on this subject, so rarely Hollywood fare, target them, even if it is based on the novel Push. I wasn’t aware that the movie was set in the 80s. It seems to me that it isn’t a filmmaker’s job to make every film a documentary that has historical and economic accuracy. I agree more hints would have been appropriate. On the other hand, why did the director make the teacher a beautiful light skinned black woman? Why is the actress who plays Precious so dark and so formidably ugly? Why is the social worker also white? (Everyone in charge seems to be white) Why does the school and social work agency take such a big interest in a student who is so withdrawn and uncooperative? Is that realistic? We learn that Precious is good at math, but that hardly seems likely, as she doesn’t pay any attention or even open her book in class. Why do we never see the father, who apparently still lives in or near the family, except briefly, when he is raping Precious? The movie was brave, and it’s about time the issues in it were addressed in a popular much heralded film, but yes, I agree, it does raise questions about how Precious’s desperate situation might have been portrayed with a bit more insight and accuracy. It might be that the movie tied itself too closely to the novel, which I haven’t read.

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  11. Jack Labusch says:

    When’s the last time a movie with strong didactic content clicked outside its target audience? Medical drama “John Q.” (2002) and documentary “Sicko” (2007) both had respectable box office grosses. Neither had any effect on the current health care debate.

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  12. Bill says:

    Interesting post. Thanks so much for sharing these rich ideas. I agree that the film offers some troubling stereotypes–the bucket of chicken (!), the archetypal “welfare queen” (Precious’s mom). But I also feel compelled to defend the film on a couple points.

    Narratives situate “individuals” in broader contexts with varying degrees of depth. Some stories make only passsing nods at structural forces. Cormac McCarthy’s fiction comes to mind. What motivates the killer in “No Country for Old Men”? What caused the devastation in “The Road”? We never find out. But the narratives still reveal something to us.

    “Precious” never offers its viewers a mouthpiece who explicitly critiques systemic injustices. But I do think some of the film’s images SUGGEST those injustices. Certainly the film shows us a failing school. Certainly the film juxtaposes Precious’s theft of the chicken with her mom alternately forcefeeding and starving her.

    And, arguably, Precious’s experience is shaped much, much more by being raped than by a decline in manufacturing jobs.

    I have mixed feelings. On one hand, the film offers an intense, affective, even agonistic experience. But I think you are right in suggesting that the film missed opportunities to contextualize more explicitly and risked the perpetuation of some ugly, ugly stereotypes.

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  13. Dennis LaRue says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, nor do I intend to, especially after this review. But the reviewer, any reviewer, should keep in mind that the writers, directors and producers have only so much time (and resources) and it’s a hard job to decide what to include, what time allows to be included, and what can/must be left out. In the end, it’s their movie, not the reviewer’s, the story they want to get across, not what the reviewer thinks they should have gotten across. Denise Narcisse’s points may have some validity but in the end it’s Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s movie, not hers, and should be judged on its merits (or lack thereof), not what the reviewer thinks should have been included .

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  14. Kris, I haven’t seen it either, but your point about the blond fantasy self makes me it sounds like this is another movie that blames poverty on racism rather than the class system. Artistically, it would be just as plausible, and perhaps more plausible, for her idealized mirror image to be Beyonce.

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  15. Karen says:

    A very thoughtful post — I have not seen the movie, yet, although I have taught the book, Push. I did wonder about how the movie depicts social conditions or if it falls into stereotypes.

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  16. Kris Harsh says:

    It’s a tough call. Fear and shame are powerful motivators. Precious at least avoids the morality play/preachyness of most of Tyler Perry’s stage work and paints a very realistic image of life in that time, in that place. I don’t know that the film would even command as much attention if it attempted to throw in the “why and because” that you might be looking for. In fact, the absence of a clear message in this film is a huge break for Perry.

    If i could indulge one counter point; throughout the movie Precious sees herself as a thin, blond white girl in the mirror until the very end, when she see’s herself. To me, this was a pretty clear message to the audience that self-perception is warped in America.

    That the film doesn’t delve in to the social conditions making Precious’ life so tormented (and i agree with you on the over-emphasis of the individual) it does leave viewers with a naked look at a life most will never understand. Perhaps, if nothing else, it will make it harder for some people to be judgmental about the urban poor and their inability to snap their fingers and escape poverty

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