24 March 2010

Precious, and why it struck me as incredibly racist and classist.

Last night, with high expectations, I finally watched Precious; and, oh, was I disappointed. In fact, the film struck me as extremely racist and classist, and it made me very, very angry.

Spoilers follow, though I wouldn't be afraid. You pretty much know what to expect before getting into the film, one of those tales of a difficult life but the possibility of happiness and success.

Precious lives in Harlem with her single mother (played by Mo'Nique, who is such a good actress, that she almost made the movie worth watching). Stereotypes about poor people of color and people on welfare prevail through the entire film. Precious' mother is a monster: all day, she sits in front of her TV, watching game shows, while her daughter cooks her meals. She lives entirely on welfare, lies to the welfare officers, tells her daughter not to bother get an education, because it will never help her along the way. I have no doubt that people like that exist, that families like that are real, and they are awful, but I've heard this story plenty of times. It's the story we hear when we petition for less welfare and create programs like New York's WEP. Where's the story of my mother, who is only a successful doctor today, saving the lives of others, because the help of Washington state's generous welfare program? The story that could help other poor, single, working mothers along the way? Nope, we never hear that story. The only stories we hear are stereotypes.

Racist stereotypes are everywhere, too. Not just the obvious stuff (Precious steals an entire bucked of fried chicken), which actually might be somewhat realistic, but all of Precious' problems are blamed on the black family in which she lives. Her mother throws around insults, calling every white woman a "white bitch". On the internet, I've read several complaints by people insulted by the constant repetition of "white bitch". Not once does the film show that, perhaps, a poor black family is justified in being angry at white people in a white supremacist culture. Instead, the white people (and fair-skinned) middle-class people, in true Freedom Writers fashion, are the heroes, rescuing her from her terrifying family situation. Please, can you tell me a story I haven't heard before?

Worse even than the racist and classist stereotypes is that the movie pretends that the structure allows for success.  Precious goes to an alternative school where a loving teacher who's there because she "loves to teach" leads a class of maybe six kids in a beautiful classroom in a hotel, and gives Precious the one-on-one attention she needs to learn how to read, to dream of a brighter future. How does she get into this program? Through the help of her white principal. Clearly, children with such family circumstances as Precious require better schools than children with better family environments, but they seldom have the opportunity to receive such help. Instead, the environment of public schools in poor communities of color is significantly worse than that of middle-class suburban schools. Only the first five-or-so minutes of the movie take place in a Harlem public school, and, although somewhat rowdy and crowded, it's presented at overall normal. The building looks intact, the teacher tries to teach, it's the kids who just sit around, make noise, and don't do their homework. Those of you reading my blog recently know that I'm absolutely obsessed with Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. Published in 1991, Kozol goes to New York City public schools during the very time that the film takes place, and gives tear-jerking descriptions of the circumstances in these schools. Precious simply didn't do the truth justice.

I'm still very frustrated. I simply don't know why it's ok for us to hear the same stories over and over again, while ignoring the real problems that are the reason why these stories even happen. Movies like this continue to discourage political and social change that might actually help poor people of color. The typical structure is entirely ignored, while the focus is on special circumstances and individual success stories. I am furious.

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