Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday Flickers: A "Precious" Backlash?

As the title character in Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, young actor Gabourey Sidibe, portraying an overweight black young woman who suffers traumatic sexual and emotional abuse, has justifiably picked up raves.

The film, which opened wide on Friday, so far has scored $21.4 million at the box office. And it has received some of the best reviews of the year, with many critics suggesting that the movie will be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.

Roger Ebert called Precious "a great American film," while the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday wrote that it "qualifies as the most painful, poetic and improbably beautiful film of the year."

Betsy Sharkey, writing in the Los Angeles Times, had this to say: "Nothing quite prepares you for the rough-cut diamond that is Precious. A rare blend of pure entertainment and dark social commentary, this shockingly raw, surprisingly irreverent and absolutely unforgettable story."

Metacritic score: 79/100. Rotten Tomatoes score: 91%.

Made on a $10 million budget, Precious was conceived and created by African-American artists: Director Lee Daniels (Shadowboxer) and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher adapted the film from Sapphire's novel, published in 1996. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are among the executive producers.

And now, the backlash, as no good work goes unpunished.

A few critics, including New York Film Critics Circle chairman Armond White, are taking to task the film's decidedly negative representations of black life, according to a story in the New York Times.

White, in his New York Press review, delivered an incendiary attack, comparing the film to one of the most vilified movies of all time.

"Not since ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clich├ęs (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show.”

White, a black critic with something of a reputation for drawing attention to himself with reviews that seem to stoke controversy for the sake of stoking controversy, isn't alone with his concerns. Black academics and other observers have expressed dismay over the African-American images presented by the film, accusing the movie of fostering ugly stereotypes.

Others, though, disagree with White's assessment, according to the Times piece: "Latoya Peterson, the editor of, a blog about the intersection of race and popular culture, said Mr. White was off base. 'His review buys into the narrative that there can only be one acceptable presentation of black life,' Ms. Peterson said. 'He’s flattening the black experience, and in that way, he denies our humanity.' Ms. Peterson, who lives in the Washington area, said that she believed that Precious effectively tackled many issues affecting young girls: 'sexual abuse, poverty, violence and failing schools.' "

I tend to take Peterson's line. Extreme political correctness demands absolute control of images, in order to ensure that nobody, anywhere, will take offense. The artist's way, though, is to reflect all of life, whether perfect or flawed, beautiful or ugly to behold.

Precious is nothing if not a work of art.

White may be well intentioned, but he's wrongheaded. Here's hoping that his critical sniping won't hurt this film's commercial prospects, or chances for Oscar success.

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