3.17.2010

two movie reflections, part one: precious

We watched "Precious (based...)" last night. I haven't read the book yet, and I purposely stayed away from reviews, as I always do before I see a movie. I found the film compelling, convincing, and very authentic. "Precious" is a story of self-emancipation from degrading and soul-destroying experience. It's hopeful, but still realistic.

"Precious" is not the standard-issue heroic-teacher movie, where the iconoclastic teacher never quits on the toughest rebel cases, and together they forge a bond to pass the big test and change their lives. The character Precious makes her own decision to change her life. That is, indeed, the only way change happens.

Of course she has help. No one ever does it alone. No one of any age gets out of a trapping situation without support and assistance, and certainly not a teenager. It can't be done. But the will to accept help and explore options must come from within. I thought the movie showed that. Precious decides to try the alternative school, she decides to let people into her life, decides to share her story (often the focus of liberation), decides to say, "Enough!" to being her mother's slave. Decides to break the cycle and love her baby.

Coming to the movie relatively cold, I didn't know it contained a portrait of an alternative inner-city school. This was exactly the kind of centre where I tutored and taught, and those were exactly my students: Adult Basic Education (ABE) for young people who had already dropped out of school. My students faced seemingly insurmountable challenges, but they hadn't given up. They were still reaching out for help.

The classroom scenes were dead-on. I laughed with the accuracy and authenticity - and I hurt a little, because I loved that work and I sometimes miss the unique joys it brought. The only hint of inauthenticity that I found in "Precious" was that lovely tiny classroom with maybe eight or ten students. There may be programs like that, but they are rare.

This was the mid-90s. A social worker told me that one-third of the students in my class were HIV-positive.

In a comment on an earlier thread, a reader found "Precious" contained that racist Hollywood cliche where the white hero swoops in to save the poor darkies. To my relief, I didn't find that in this movie at all. Although the social worker played by Mariah Carey may be white - or may not be - the movie doesn't cast her in a saviour role. Precious has to disclose her burden in order to get help, and she has to make the decision to go back to the familiar hell or face the vast unknown.

* * * *

Many people believe incest to be a bizarre and rare phenomenon. It is anything but. A history of childhood sexual abuse is extremely common among low-income and homeless populations - not because poor people are more likely to commit incest, but because sexual abuse easily creates the conditions that lead to a lifetime of poverty. A child who grows up with sexual abuse and never gets help is extremely likely to drop out of school, live on the street, do sex work, become a drug addict, have inappropriate relationships resulting in lots of children for whom she is unprepared to care, end up in prison, or any combination of these. One of the few places I've seen the link between poverty and sexual abuse made visible, outside of social service settings, is in David Shipler's book, The Working Poor (a very good book, worth reading).

The key is getting help. I've shared "survivor panels" - public speaking about personal experience surviving sexual assault - with incest survivors; there were several in my Model Mugging group. In all honesty, I am in awe of them. To grow up in a home where you never feel safe - to be sexually assaulted on a regular basis - and to be utterly dependent on your assailant for survival - yet to survive, recover and transcend - is truly to live a heroic life. The women and men I met who had done this were all living "normal" lives - relationships, careers, the works. But they had done a lot of work. It's definitely possible - but not alone.

20 comments:

Jere said...

I thought it was good too. Mo'nique was great. I never thought for a second that Mariah's character was supposed to be anything other than what Mariah is. I just thought they were going for the "here's what a glamorous star would look like if she didn't have make-up on" effect.

L-girl said...

Mo'nique was amazing. A very difficult role, and she was excellent. Her epiphany and breakdown in the welfare office was quite a scene.

Neither Allan nor I recognized Mariah Carey until the credits. I thought she was perfectly adequate to the role.

Did you already know she was in the movie? That may have made a difference in your "buying" or not buying the performance.

Also, I've probably seen maybe 2 or 3 snips of performances of hers, ever. I'm not super-familiar with what any of the no-talent celebs look like.

redsock said...

I didn't make the connection even after we saw the credits. "Where the hell was she in the movie?"

Jere said...

Ha--no, I just recognized her. We definitely did the whole, "wait, that IS Mariah Carey, right?" thing though, and then confirmed in the credits. But I didn't mean I didn't buy the character, I thought she was fine, I just meant I never thought about the effect of having a white social worker in the movie because to me there was no white social worker.

Unless Mariah is white and I've thought she was black for 20 years. "Are we supposed to be talking about this?"*

*another one of those Seinfeld quotes that I don't know if it falls within your Season 1-6 window

L-girl said...

Ah-ha! I totally misunderstood your comment.

I guess if asked, I would have guessed Mariah Carey was white, but I would have had to think about it.

I do know the Seinfeld ep. I like how Elaine asks him to go for Latin food (which they call "Spanish") thinking that covered the ethnic thing.

L-girl said...

It would be perfectly normal for there to be white people in social services or in education in Precious's life. But in the alternative school, not so much. I was one of two white people on a teaching staff of around 40.

But it's more the way the story is written than anything else - who is give "agency," as the academics like to say.

redsock said...

Darryl: "So, we're just a couple of white people?"
Elaine: "I guess."
Darryl: "Oh."
Elaine: "Yeah. So do you want to go to the Gap?"
Darryl, leaving with Elaine: "Sure."

----

wow. it's late in the final season.

Dharma Seeker said...

Jere most of the media attention Mariah got was because of the de-glam. She said she considers it a compliment when people don't recognize her - not because it speaks to her acting chops - but because people realize she's not that ugly. Her words, not mine ;P

Unless a story based on actual events was changed so that a white actor portrays someone who was actually a person of colour I don't really get the criticism. I was born a WASP (can now drop the P so I guess I'm a WAS) and I volunteer with kids in the system. In fact I asked for that placement. Most of the staff there are white. None of us consider ourselves saviours (I hate American spell checkers). It really chafes that people would see the efforts of someone helping these kids as having less merit because they happen to be white. I'd love for someone to try and tell me I that I care about these kids less because I don't share their ethnicity, or that I'm patronizing them. I put their well being ahead of my own health. Why can't a kind heart just be a kind heart?

I understand that mainstream movies are very much geared toward popular consumption so the imagery that's involved is not insignificant, but sometimes one person helping another person or a group of persons is just that. I haven't seen Precious or the Blind Side. Apparently the Blind Side was based on actual events. Is there evidence of the story being altered to more favourably portray a white woman?

Dharma Seeker said...

Also, I've probably seen maybe 2 or 3 snips of performances of hers, ever. I'm not super-familiar with what any of the no-talent celebs look like.

snort.

L-girl said...

It has nothing to do with having a kind heart, or how much you or I as white people care about any group of kids of various colours. That's all nice and wonderful, but irrelevant in this context.

Historically, people of colour have been portrayed as being unable to emanicipate themselves from degrading circumstances, and/or unable to govern themselves in humane and democratic fashion, without the direct intervention of white people.

In dozens and dozens of fictional stories, a befuddled or incompetent group of people of colour need a heroic white figure to lead them to freedom. These are movies made by white people for mainly white audiences, and they perpetuate harmful stereotypes all around.

In other supposedly nonfictional accounts, stories of black self-emancipation are passed up for some nugget of heroic whiteitude. So sure, there were white people involved in the abolition of slavery and in the civil rights movement - but why are their stories told instead of those of the thousands of heroic black stories? Mainly because white people are making those movies for white people.

This is a trend in books and movies over decades and decades, and you might imagine how the irritation would add up.

If I had to watch histories of the women's movement that made it appear that men emancipated women, and women didn't organize and agitate for themselves - or histories of the labour movement that portrayed workers as too stupid and lazy to self-activate and waiting on some kind rich to help them - and I had to see this stuff all the time for years and years and years, I'd be pretty fucking sick of it.

L-girl said...

I'm not super-familiar with what any of the no-talent celebs look like.

snort.


Heh, I guess I shouldn't be lumping all these people in one big no-talent category. Let's put it this way, in a line-up, I'd have trouble picking out Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, J-Lo, or any of the many people whose names I hear mentioned. It's all one big celebrity blur to me, I usually don't know who anyone is.

For all I know Mariah Carey is a brilliant talent who doesn't belong in that category. But oh well.

L-girl said...

but why are their stories told instead of those of the thousands of heroic black stories? Mainly because white people are making those movies for white people.

I should add...

And these movies make white people feel good about themselves, showing how noble and not-racist they are, while actually perpetuating a more subtle form of racism.

Dharma Seeker said...

It's all one big celebrity blur

I think that's an excellent description. I was amused because Miriah Carey is notoriously a terrible actress - I haven't seen Precious though. Even though she is undeniably talented as a singer her heyday was over a long time ago.

In dozens and dozens of fictional stories, a befuddled or incompetent group of people of colour need a heroic white figure to lead them to freedom.

I understand what you're saying but don't see how that relates to The Blind Side which is based on actual events. Are people tearing this movie down because they resent the way people of colour and white people are portrayed in fictional stories? Therein lies the reason I'm bothered, which is not irrelevant to me. If the personal is political and all true stories about people reaching out to people that do not share their ethnicity are being dismissed it's not irrelevant to me at all. It may not be personal to you but it is to me, unless someone can demonstrate that artistic liberties were taken with the film to reinforce racial stereotypes.

L-girl said...

I understand what you're saying but don't see how that relates to The Blind Side which is based on actual events.

I haven't seen The Blind Side, but how the argument relates is about what stories are chosen.

There are zillions of stories that are "real life events". Why did we see "Mississippi Burning" - a true story about a heroic white government worker who saved the civil rights day after the assassination of Medgar Evers - but not a Hollywood movie about Evers himself?

Simply to say "but it was true" doesn't address this question. Enough with white America congratulating itself for no longer being racist - and showing how great they were all along.

Also, never for a moment should you think a Hollywood movie is a faithful portrayal of real events. You're asking if "artistic liberties" were taking. Respectfully, this can only mean you don't understand how these kinds of movies are made.

A Hollywood movie is - at best - a Hollywood version of events, written and packaged for Hollywood audiences. Events are simplified, people's roles enhanced or ignored, outcomes changed and re-directed. Hollywood movies have to follow a simple formula, and life rarely, if ever, does that. So whether or not The Blind Side is based on actual events is essentially meaningless in this debate.

As I said, I didn't see the movie, but if you want to understand the criticism of this movie and so many others like it, you have to step outside your own personal situation, and outside of this one movie, and see a larger context.

Dharma Seeker said...

how the argument relates is about what stories are chosen

That makes sense, thank you.

A Hollywood movie is - at best - a Hollywood version of events, written and packaged for Hollywood audiences. Events are simplified, people's roles enhanced or ignored, outcomes changed and re-directed. Hollywood movies have to follow a simple formula, and life rarely, if ever, does that.

I completely agree. That's the reason I was so disappointed with The Hurt Locker which is being praised for its realism. Suffice it to say it's not realistic at all.

L-girl said...

In case I wasn't clear, I said understand the criticism, not agree with it. In the end you may still disagree, but based on your comments, it sounds like you're talking about a different issue entirely, and not really understanding what the debate is about.

That's why I said "irrelevant" - not irrelevant to your life, but irrelevant to the discussion of what movies get made, what stories we see, what stereotypes are perpetuated. And your life and my life are both irrelevant to this particular debate.

The fact is not that

all true stories about people reaching out to people that do not share their ethnicity are being dismissed

- it's that these stories are practically all we see!

L-girl said...

Our comments crossed there, we were posting at the same time. :)

redsock said...

The Hurt Locker was also very clearly (to me, at least) a pro-war movie. It pissed me off.

L-girl said...

I hated Hurt Locker, and was disgusted by the 100% US POV. Hey, want to not get blown up by a bomb? Get the hell out of someone else's country.

Let's save the rest of this discussion for another post, ok?

impudent strumpet said...

I'm not in the market to see this movie, but I felt the need to google up what Mariah Carey looked like in it. Now I want to know precisely how she does her makeup for real life!