The Color Precious

These two commercially successful, much-hyped films both explore incest, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy and colorism within the black community. So why has “Precious” not gotten “The Color Purple” treatment?

IMDb (Lionsgate)
IMDb (Lionsgate)

Yet, according to film scholar Jacqueline Bobo, the biggest and most enduring criticism toward both Walker and Spielberg came from a maelstrom of African-American men who charged that the film’s treatment of its black male characters was demeaning and racist. On a special episode of The Phil Donahue Show, fellow talk show host Tony Brown declared that the movie was “the most racist depiction of black men since The Birth of a Nation and the most anti-black family film of the modern film era.” In the journal Film Comment, Spike Lee argued that Hollywood chose to turn Walker’s novel into a movie precisely because Walker depicted black men as “one-dimensional animals.”

Ironically, despite the fact that Precious is repeatedly raped and impregnated twice by her father, there has been little criticism about the negative representations of African Americans aimed at either Sapphire, the author, or Daniels, the director. While Armond White’s online review describes Precious as “an orgy of prurience,” and Slate’s Dana Stevens calls it “poverty porn,” most of the reviews have been laudatory. Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the heroine, and Mo’Nique, its villain, have received universal acclaim for their performances. (With The Color Purple, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey were all nominated for Oscars.)

So how we do we explain these radically different receptions of the films? The answer lies in their differences. Unlike The Color Purple, the male characters in Precious take a back seat to the woman, which neutralizes the potential for the sort of backlash that surrounded The Color Purple.

A.O. Scott notes in his New York Times review: “There are virtually no men in this movie. Precious’ father is glimpsed briefly in flashbacks of his assaults on her, and in the fantasy sequences that provide escape from her pain, Precious hobnobs with handsome boys, but otherwise the only male character of significance is a hospital worker played by Lenny Kravitz.”

The focus of Precious’ pain centers on her relationship with her abusive mother. In doing so, the film does not make the same formidable critique of patriarchy that The Color Purple does. While we are repulsed by the incest narrative, there is no Pa or Mister. who governs over Celie with an iron-fist. In his place is Mary, Precious’ cruel, welfare-dependent, African-American mother, whose very presence in the film conjures up stereotypes about deviant black motherhood that bloomed during the Reagan era in which the film is set.