Given its celebrity fanfare and feminist themes, is Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, a 21st-century The Color Purple? Or is it Native Son in drag?
Lee Daniels’ second film, Precious, fared quite well last weekend. Despite its soft release in only 18 theaters, Precious pulled in a remarkable $1.8 million, suggesting that on average, each theater made $100,000 off its showing. Even my brazen attempt to see the film in Times Square on Sunday night resulted in my having to purchase a ticket for Monday morning, because all four of the remaining shows were sold out in Harlem and Union Square.
With its mostly positive critical reviews and its popularity among African-American audiences, Precious, for all appearances, has struck gold. In many ways, the cultural phenomenon that has become Precious harkens back to the financial success of The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same name. A year after its original release date, The Color Purple, which also boasted a strong opening, had made almost $100 million.
However, unlike the favorable reception that has greeted Precious, The Color Purple sparked great controversy about its negative portrayals of African-American families, and, in particular, African-American men. Given their explorations of the similar themes of incest, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy and colorism within the African-American community, why has Precious received so little backlash?
Mainstream publications such as the National Review and The New Yorker lampooned Spielberg for deviating from his standard scripts of blockbusters. Newsweek critic David Ansen pronounced Spielberg’s effort to be “the first Disney film about incest.”
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.
As filmmaker Aishah Simmons also points out, while the film innovatively highlights the reality of mother-on-child violence, audience members can only wonder if “the film is much more palatable to digest because darker brown skinned, overweight black women, especially single mothers, are so demonized in society.” Why, for example, did Tim Disney’s American Violet, a film set in the same Reagan era, starring Alfre Woodard, about single African-American mother unjustly incarcerated for dealing drugs, receive so little attention this summer? It is true, as literary critic Erica Edwards notes, that the vitriolic Mary seems more similar to Vera Thomas, the abusive mother in Richard Wright’s Native Son, and is void of empathy. It is a decidedly unsympathetic portrayal. Much like the 2004 film, The Woodsman, which Lee Daniels produced, Mary’s pathology has little history, her psychosis, no diagnosis. It risks reinforcing Cosbyseque stereotypes about black maternal deviance.
But, Precious also achieves another feat, for it consistently and brutally reminds us that far too many children—Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels and Oprah included—are victims of sexual, verbal and physical abuse. While some critics see Precious as the corrective of The Color Purple, it does so by replacing the racism of the segregated South with the benevolence of government institutions, focusing on family and neighborhood violence without a consistent challenge to sexism. And yet, despite these reservations, I left the film with a none-too-subtle reminder that incest, sexual assault and domestic violence remain the “invisible” hot-button policy and social-justice issues of our time. In this way, the lack of backlash surrounding Precious might owe more to The Color Purple than we care to remember.
Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the non-profit organization, A Long Walk Home, Inc., which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to document and to end violence against underserved women and children.
Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.