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:
- Substandard housing and a lack of jobs, which have been linked to increased student transiency, disrupted student learning, and lower student achievement.
- 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