“God save us from the good intentions of well-meaning white liberals.” That was Morgan Freeman years ago at the press junket for “Driving Miss Daisy” explaining to some concerned Caucasian that, no, it wasn’t retrograde to depict an elderly black character in the American South of the ’50s and ’60s not acting like Huey Newton.
God didn’t do such a hot job for Bruce Beresford’s movie — that graceful, sly two-hander is still talked about as if it were some antebellum fantasy of black servility.
But if, as Pauline Kael said, there’s a separate God for the movies, then perhaps He or She will some day explain how “Precious,” a racist freak show, has been widely embraced as a gritty, unsparing film about black inner-city life, while “The Blind Side,” a tough-minded, unresolvable picture about the contradictions that occur when race and class and talent collide in America, has been generally derided as a sappy triumph-of-the-human-spirit crowdpleaser.
Part of the answer has to do with the willingness of critics to be suckered by miserablism, the simple-minded formulation that equates drabness or hopelessness or barbarism with seriousness and depth. The uglier part of the answer has to do with the willingness of white liberals to be suckered by miserablism when it comes to race.
If the story of “Precious” were told with white characters, its ludicrous pile-up of dysfunction and abuse might have led many critics to think of Thelma Ritter in “All About Eve” listening to Anne Baxter’s tale o’ woe and delivering the verdict, “Everything but the bloodhounds yappin’ at her rear end.” (New York Press critic Armond White did hear that line and quoted it in his review, one of the first to call out the racism of the movie). Instead, that very ludicrousness is what’s gotten the movie acclaimed as unsparing and true.
The critics falling for “Precious” are like the parody in John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” of the prosperous white tourists who travel to South African townships and ask their guides, “Are you sure they’re the worst off? I mean, we’ve come all this way. We don’t want to see people just mildly victimized by apartheid. We demand shock.”
“Precious” satisfies the belief that only when we’re shocked are we seeing a true version of black urban life. And it panders to that desire for shock as crassly as a splatter film panders to moviegoers looking for blood and dismemberment. After all, “Precious” is a horror movie.
To be specific, it’s The Moynihan Report reimagined as a horror movie. That 1965 report, named after the future New York Senator who headed the commission which produced it, raised an uproar with its claims that “the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which… retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.” Nearly 50 years after the left condemned the racist paternalism of that report, white liberals are embracing essentially the same vision in “Precious.” Mo’Nique’s monster of a mother presides over the film like Leatherface, and it’s Gabourey Sidibe who is, metaphorically, hanging on the meathook the entire time.
Even The Moynihan Report allowed that, given the horrors suffered by African-Americans, a lesser race would have died out. But the vision of “Precious” negates every idea of black progress, every idea of people persisting through the most awful circumstances. The “truth” as presented by “Precious” is unending disease and dysfunction and degradation. Where is the emergence of a soul that the film’s admirers have claimed? As Ishmael Reed’s noted in his takedown of the film on the New York Times op-ed page, “Precious” leaves its protagonist HIV-positive, unemployed, barely literate, with two children, one of them with Down syndrome. And as Dana Stevens wrote on Slate, ” ‘Precious’ is supposed to be about the heroine lifting herself out of abjection, yet the film itself wallows in abjection.”
The director, Lee Daniels, pushes everything in our face: the abuse, the dingy surroundings, the fatty food cooking on the stove, and especially the faces of Sidibe and Mo’Nique. Daniels uses Mo’Nique and Sidibe’s weight to confirm their characters’ ignorance, to disgust us, presenting them in unrelenting close-ups that make them look less like people than beasts growling at each other in a tightly confined space.
It’s not just that “Precious” allows its audience to wallow in the pornography of compassion, it’s that the film’s supposed objects of compassion are presented as subhuman.