gall and gumption

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Another Take

The Ghost of Chuckling, in comments to my post on the movie Precious:

Hi Kia, I finally got around to watching Precious. I agree that your teacher Mudrick pegged the basic nature of the story. There must be a reason that story is told over and over and over again. The collective unconscious, perhaps? In this case, for a popular movie, I thought it was very well done. And it's not like she went on to live happily ever after. Pretty much anyone who had AIDS in 1987 was dead by 1991.

The whole thing came off as very realistic to me, at least with the caveats associated with the limitations of the form. The author was raped and abused by her father. She taught adult literacy in Harlem for five or six years in the late eighties/early nineties. She is a lesbian. It's not as if it had been written by a Bennington grad from the upper east side. And I (should say "we" because I watched it with my wife and we were mostly in agreement about it) had a totally different reading of the "what's that white bitch want" part. The "who's the real racist" angle didn't even occur to us. We saw it as a great example of how those two worlds are so far apart that communication is incredibly difficult, most often impossible. We thought it was very well-done for that type of movie in that it didn't explicitly make that point about communication, about how from their ghetto perspective they couldn't even fathom the possibility that the white bitch was going way out of her way to help them. All they could imagine, all their experience had ever taught them, was that the white bitch wanted to somehow punish them. Take away the welfare, kick them out of school. Whatever. In the really crappy movies, there's usually a magic character to explain all that.

We did question the well-trodden territory of The Color Purple. It is unfortunate that so many prominent African-American writers feature incest in their novels. Invisible Man is another famous example. Is incest an ethnic trait among African-Americans? Everything I've read suggests it's a class thing, not an ethnic thing. Being from south Podunk, all the examples I know of personally occurred in poor white families. But I think it is valid to argue that the inclusion of these scenes in so many prominent works does give the impression that it's an ethnic (racial for the really ignorant) thing. But should an artist consider that kind of political calculation, particularly when writing about things she personally experienced? I can't bring myself to say no, not when it's truly an honest and integral part of the story.

Regarding the issue of parodying the poor and propagating a message that they are undeserving, irredeemably horrible, dangerous parasites; we got pretty much the opposite message from the movie. And to be fair, that pretty much is the movie's message, that the poorest of the poor are not irredeemable. For us, that was where the Mudrick take was so painful. It might be believable that Precious could progress with the help of a wonderful teacher, but the liklihood of that whole class turning into happy, well-adjusted young women is pretty much nil.

Anyway, I don't mean to attack your take on it. We just saw those same issues a bit differently.

On another note, I'm currently doing a photo project with kids from one of the worst performing high schools in the South Bronx. As yet, I haven't been able to get much below the surface, but I can sense some of the same issues at work. Precious is a composite. How many real life characters is it made of?

This all seems very reasonable to me, and I think does better justice to the characters than I do. And yet, for me, it doesn't make my problems with the story go away.


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