Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Are we really all Precious?

UPDATE: ringShout has published a must-read Salon about Push & Erasure. Go here.

Wow, I haven't seen the internets this fired up about a movie in a long time. I'm talking about "Precious" of course. The movie based on the book Push, which has had readers fired up since it came out in the 90s.

Full disclosure: I haven't read the book, but I am planning to attend the premier of the movie at the Denver Film Festival Thursday. I didn't read the book because I don't do well with such intensely dark subject matter. It stays with me for too long, giving me nightmares and spiraling me into depression (For example, I haven't read The Lovely Bones or The Kite Runner, which have children raped in them. And if the movie proves too raw, I've got plans to duck out to the bar.). I also had a Percival Everett-type bias against the book. Why oh why lawd do the popular black books gotta be about slaves or girls getting raped or living in the ghetto, and why come they have to be in Ebonics? Or as Dave Chapelle might ask, Why are books about black people as slaves or living in the ghetto, strung out on drugs and having babies by their father so popular and so beloved by critics? Are white readers more comfortable with a depiction of black folks as pathologic losers? Do black victims provide catharsis for white guilt? I can't help remembering Eddie Murphy's skit on SNL about white folks applauding the prisoner-poet reciting his poem about murdering his landlord ("C-I-L-L/ kill my landlord/ kill my landlord").

But let's not forget how popular Push is with black readers, for sharing a story some feel they haven't seen nearly enough. As much as some of us feel insulted that anyone would assume that Precious is them, there are thousands of women out there who relate to Precious and feel validated by her presence in literature.

But still some people believe the movie is exploitation masked as reality. Some bloggers are concerned because all too often a movie like this comes to represent all black people's stories, which obviously it is not. (Quiet as it's kept, black people are just as bad about this as white people. I don't know how many black folks have exclaimed "There are black folks in Omaha?!" when they hear where I grew up. The number of times someone black has assumed something about me because of my blackness is equal to the number of times someone white has done it. Maybe we all need to learn that one character does not, cannot and should not represent all black people; we get to be individuals too.)

I'm not here to say that anyone should or should not read Push or see "Precious." I'm here to repeat what another blogger once said, Sometimes it's hard being an African American writer (and for this post, let's include African American filmmakers too). We're kind of damned if we do and damned if we don't.

There may be lots wrong symbolically with the movie (I've seen lots of tweets on Twitter upset because it seems the dark-skinned folks are saved by light-skinned folks). And there may be lots wrong with the book too, but for a story to generate this much interest and upset I suspect that there's something right about both too.

Here's a round-up of just some of the reviews, analysis and interviews about Push & "Precious." Would love to hear your thoughts.

Sapphire, author of Push, gives a 45-minute interview to Katie Couric.
A blogger takes on the politics of skin color in "Precious."
Author Paula L. Woods reviews the movie. (Echoing my feelings about "Slumdog Millionaire," which I only saw because it was promoted as being so "uplifting," but it didn't end with nearly enough uplift to make the pain I saw on screen worth it. I still question if this movie wasn't so popular because it helped exorcise some Western viewers' guilt about their comparative wealth.)
The Root questions if the breakout performances in "Precious" will mean breakout careers for the lead actresses.
Jezebel compares Push and "Precious" and finds hope in both (be sure to check out the "nice white lady video from Mad TV!)
Emerging Writer's Network reviews Everett's Erasure and other books.
Juan Williams includes "Precious" in a Wall Street Journal article about street lit, which I think many would argue with. From what I've heard, there's nothing in "Precious" or Push that glamorizes drugs or sex or street life as many of these books do.
Is "Precious" an "orgy of prurience" or "risky and remarkable"? (Could it be both?)
Either way..."Precious" opens big.

Finally, for all of us writers and artists who feel it's sometimes not easy being us.


Julie Kibler said...

I haven't read the book or seen the movie yet, but saw the previews several months ago and have been anticipating seeing it. This is an interesting post, Carleen, and I'll be thinking of your words as I watch and observing more carefully what the movie stirs up in me. Probably will be considering it in a different light than I might have. Thanks for making me think, as always.

I saw the young woman who plays Precious on Letterman tonight, and I have to say she has the most infectious giggle I've heard in a long time, which I doubt somehow shows up in the movie much. I was giggling right along with her as she told a few funny anecdotes about her (fairly average, it seems) life before Precious. She has charisma aplenty, so I'd be surprised if we don't see more of her down the road.

tiah said...

1. I found it interesting you find a movie easier to deal with emotionally than a book. I can take a lot more graphic hardship in written form than in a movie. Maybe because in a book I can put it down and take a break.

2. I have not read the book or seen the movie. What I do have a hard time with is the idea that any "type" of book must fit a mould. Example - Saying all Asian children play chess is wrong - but equally it would be wrong to say, ignore a brilliant memoir, simply because the Asian girl in it is brilliant at chess. I think what needs to happen, and perhaps what you are striving for - is a full spectrum - and the full spectrum embraced. In that, I can agree. Marketing seems to slot groups of people into narrow categories which only hurt society as a whole. So perhaps Precious should not so much be stifled, but other books brought up to the same level, too - giving a greater "portrait." But to ask one book to represent everything about a group of people is too much.

South Africa is also struggling to find their own full spectrum in their literature. Amazing how so many of the issues cross over.

Kayenne said...

Precious is not every Black woman's story like some have said. It may however be about someone we all know--whether they have admitted it openly or not.

I would like to see more diversity in films. Unless its "dark" or straight hood, our movies are not being made as much. I had once thought with movies like The Best Man, Two Can Play that Game, that we were going to see more diversity. Why aren't there more Black romantic comedies now? I thought those movies did pretty well, but maybe only in DVD sales.

The young lady who plays Precious is talented and I hope she gets plenty of other opportunities to showcase her talents. I would love to see her in other movies.

I'm glad to see that your book Orange, Mint and Honey will be a movie on Lifetime. I'm an avid Lifetime movie watcher and the only complaint I have is that it doesn't have as many AA movies. I know they are out there because I've read the books--so I always wondered why those books weren't being made into movies.

zettaelliott said...

Thanks for this resource, Carleen...I had issues with the book, but agree it is NOT street lit even if it gets read that way by kids in middle school...I'm wary of the film but plan to see it this week. I, too, wish we had more options at the cinema--it's either Tyler Perry's "neo-minstrelsy" or dark "ghetto" narratives...I didn't care for Love Jones but I remember how excited I was that a film about artistic young black people even existed!

Carleen Brice said...

Tiah, I wasn't clear about why I'm seeing the movie. I don't find film easier to handle than a book. I got an invitation to the premier and opening party for the Denver Film Fest. I'm more interested in the Film Fest and the party. A girlfriend and I who are going together are both chickens and really may end up spending more time at the bar than inside the theater.

Jamie Ford said...

I enjoyed the book. Hard to say "enjoy" since the book was so bleak at times. But I'm always intrigued by fiction written by poets, so Push caught my eye for that reason alone.

There are always critics when dealing with salient books that also seem to hit the center of certain stereotypes.

Amy Tan had her critics for perpetuating Asian stereotypes, but those tropes mirrored experiences in her own family.

I think people see these things through the lens of their own experience. They bring their own expectations and emotional baggage to the party, and what they take away is based on that as much as the words of the writer.

Carleen Brice said...

Kayenne, Take heart about Lifetime. I've heard that their audience is 40% black and Latina and they are looking to serve that audience. Gabrielle Union is supposed to be making a movie of the book, The Vow, and the Mowry twins are also doing a romantic comedy for Lifetime.

wdjenkins1 said...

I just don't have any desire to read "Push" or see "Precious". I really don't know anyone like Precious and I've lived in black neighborhoods all my life (by choice - I like them!)and attended public schools in DC through high school and most of college. It would be hard for someone to conceal a story so extreme - abuse, rape, children fathered by her own father, morbid obesity, on and on. There may be people I know to whom some small portion of this huge constellation of horrors occurred, but such a huge nightmare is not something from which a person could just emerge intact. "Precious" isn't street lit, it's abuse lit, a genre to which Oprah seems to be drawn. I'm not. I don't criticize the author of the book - she has the right to tell any story that she feels is valid. I'm horrified that any child would read it in Middle School. I wish for a great future for the young woman who plays "Precious". I want to see more movies by Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons, among others. I don't want to see "Precious."

Carleen Brice said...

I must say Armond White makes Precious sound completely unwatchable...however, he also calls "Norbit" and "Little Man" excellent. So I'm back to square one.

Anonymous said...

I want to say thank you for your honesty. There are books too that I cannot read because I will be too upset because of the story. I also didn't read PUSH for the same reason. I even had the book in my hands and couldn't do it. It's not the writing or the author, it's just me. Thank you for now I don't feel so alone in this.
Jo Ann Hernandez
BronzeWord Latino Authors

Jaime L. Lincoln said...

I haven't read the book and not sure if I will see the movie at this time. From the previews that I've seen it looks like the movie and actors put forth a lot to bring this to the big screen.

However, I like you am not able to deal with the subject matter, so be believe me when I say I do understand about not wanting to read the book becuase of the subject matter.

I've seen everything from rave reviews to not so nice things about both the book and the movie. It will be interesting to see if this movie will get the buzz and acolades that it sounds like it deserves....


Tee C. Royal said...

Thanks so much for sharing, Carleen! I read PUSH and plan to re-read it again, but admit it was an extremely hard read. I'm sure the movie will be too for the same reasons you mentioned. I have a daughter, so books with race and abuse to children, especially girls, I can't handle very well. I do intend to try both, though.

The movie leaves me with mixed feelings, so I'll hold comments until I've seen it.


Lafreya said...

I can't read about these subject either it's just to hard.Thanks for a balance post.Although I have a Percival Everett type bias ( what a nice way of putting this)

Carleen Brice said...

I feel like I came out of the "I'm a chicken reader" closet and have found out it's ok. There are others like me! LOL

Conseula said...

I also had (and actually continue to have) a Percival Everett-like bias against the book. maybe I will fix my bad attitude and pick it up since the film is getting some good reviews.

Mike Cane said...

>>>I can't help remembering Eddie Murphy's skit on SNL about white folks applauding the prisoner-poet reciting his poem about murdering his landlord ("C-I-L-L/ kill my landlord/ kill my landlord").

Because that was hilarious!! Everyone in NYC could relate to that. And the C-I-L-L just made it even funnier.

You don't know how many times I've looked for that clip online too.