Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Precious" the Movie: What Does This Have To Do With Corporate Injustice?

For almost five weeks I resisted seeing the movie “Precious”. I didn’t want to see the movie because I’m tired of the omnipresent stereotypes in the media and popular culture about African Americans, particularly poor African Americans. But I finally saw the movie this week because I was curious and I was concerned about yet another graphic depiction of Black women as hyperactively sexual, Black men as brutes, and Black mothers as lazy welfare queens.

Let me explain why I saw the movie. Two weeks ago I overheard a conversation between my physical therapist and another patient. This other patient was a white man who excitedly told my therapist that she had to go see the movie. He said that Monique did a great job in playing the physically abusive mother of a teenage girl who had been raped by her father. Then he explained that he had retired after thirty-five years of teaching and that this is how it was with these kids – they are really afraid of their parents. I think that he genuinely believed that the movie offered some insight into Black life. And this is why movies like “Precious” are so very dangerous.

There is very little in popular culture that reveals the textured layers of Black life in America. Most books, movies, and television shows are about Black people who are superrich – Black entertainers or sports icons – or about Black people who live in abject poverty. There are also television shows like “Meet the Browns”, a sequel to the buffoonery and antics of minstrel shows which were popular in the first half of the twentieth century. There is very little in popular culture that reflects the rich diversity of black socioeconomic life. The fascinating lives of the black American middle class are left largely unexplored.

Racial segregation is still a salient reality of twenty-first century life. Black and white children attend schools that are either predominantly Black or white. Neighborhoods are also racially segregated. So are churches. Americans of all races come together in the workplace but our personal lives, for the most part, remain separate. Many white Americans get to “know” Black Americans only by consuming the images of African Americans in popular culture. Take for example, the response of a student at Boston College to a presentation I made about the role that racial discrimination plays in impeding the advancement of people of color in the corporate workplace. He explained that, in his opinion, discrimination was not the problem. He thought that there was something in African American culture that prevents Black achievement. When I asked him to explain his position, he referred me and the rest of the class to a television show called “The Wire”.

The movie “Precious” is a compelling piece of fiction. But, it is just fiction. In an interview with Katie Couric, the author of the novel on which the movie is based explained that her work was a “montage” of several people she had met in her life. The movie is dangerous because white Americans and Americans of color live, play, worship, and learn separately. Some white Americans will believe that they are learning something about Black people when they watch the movie. The universal nature of child abuse – the fact that it poisons the lives of families of all races and at all economic levels – will get lost because there are so few healthy images of Black Americans in popular culture.

One commentator lamented that there is “clearly a segment of [Black Americans] that worries about what white people think.” We have to worry about what white people think. I research and write about racial discrimination in the corporate workplace. The senior executive ranks at all major American corporations are almost all white and are predominantly male. White people make decisions about the lives of Black professionals and working people. We have to wonder whether the decisions white managers make about hiring, promotion and pay are influenced by the parade of negative portrayals in the media and popular culture. And, even Black Americans who start their own businesses must worry about what white people think when they go to financial institutions for capital to fund their businesses. These decisions are also made primarily by white Americans.

There is so much that has been said about the movie “Precious”. There is much more to say about the way such projects are funded and the role of private companies in determining the content of pop culture. I’ll save that for another day.


  1. powerful insight professor wade. how do you respond to those that place the responsibility and/or blame on the media (writers for "the wire" and screenwriter of "prescious") for refusing to show the rich textured life of middle class african americans?

  2. I haven’t seen ‘Precious’—Up until now, I’ve been trying to think about it as giving a voice to those who are more vulnerable and portraying those for whom Hollywood looks the other way---but of course I do think that your points are well taken – what about the rest of the stories in the black community? Why is it so hard to write about the successes and the struggles of those who have achieved and the obstacles overcome? Where’s the story about Reggie Lewis for example? For those of us who grew up in Black middle class communities with all the riches it has to offer, this is all very frustrating. Thanks for taking the time to write about it.

  3. Professor Wade, your analysis is on point.
    I have not seen 'Precious' and I do not plan to see it in the future. It is too painful to see the constant barage of savage portrayals of black life.
    I love literature dnd the way in which it deals with the messiness of life. However, the depictions of blacks in the media are usually negative and corporate America invests huge amounts of money to tell those stories that assault black people.
    Child abuse is a story that needs to be told and hopefully 'Precious' will make a positive difference. It is a pity that a piece of literature is polluted by institutional racism.

  4. Given the distorted depiction in the media, there must be profit opportunities for culturally richer portrayals of the black (and Latino too, I suppose) culture. Look how much Cosby made.

    We should do private offerings to produce quality cultural depictions of people of color, to fill in the gap left behind by mainstream media.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts.

    I think there are loads of available critiques of "Precious" but I wonder if this is a legitimate one--in this context. Exaggerated forms of characters abound in media. I, for one, am so tired of seeing the same stock characters, who appear in exaggerated forms, even in "white tales." All of the slightly smart characters attended an Ivy League institution. Then, there are the required stock dummy and floosy. I, therefore, wonder if "Precious" is just a later product of the universal culprit--a lack of imagination & creativity----that is not a respecter of any culture. And a nation of dummies--the failure of creativity's--handmaiden.

    Robin Magee

  6. I couldn't figure out why I was torn about the film, but you put it well. There's a plethora of images of stereotypical black caricatures, but few black PEOPLE (i.e., humanized, not entertainment). Obama's election is a step in the right direction, which makes "Precious" all the more disconcerting: why aren't there more success stories made with black leads? Although, this probably comes from film industry leaders believing that any personaly stories outside of those as victims are not marketable.

  7. I agree with you entirely. I have yet to seen the film to date, however, I plan to see it in the near future. I agree that Hollywood depicts negative images of Blacks because that is how they perceive us to be. Screen writers, such as Tyler Perry, give viewers a different perspective of Blacks, however, characters such as Medea and Angela, from why did I get married still shed negative light on how we live out everyday lives. There are many success stories of Black Americans today and I feel that if Hollywood was more concerned about getting the story right versus box office sales then Black Americans can be shown for what they truly are…rising to a new elevation