When teaching the film Precious (2009) I would have to encourage students to grapple with issues of spectatorship with regard to representations of Blacks in American cinema. Although Black Americans or African Americans have been filmmakers since the early 1900s, it was not until the 1980s that mainstream producers and audiences would sustain support for works by and about Black Americans for more than a decade. Unfortunately, since that prolific period, African American cinema has again become scarce Discussing Precious in this cinematic landscape may unfairly burden the film, but as a contemporary representation of Black life in America, it requires our close examination. So - despite Black participation in the making of Precious - how will my students categorize the portrayal of Black characters?
In class (Anatomy of Difference) I teach how racial constructions -- one way of defining difference -- were depicted in early American cinema. I note that in film criticism more attention is given to the authorship of films than to the point of their reception - the individual spectator. Conversations about Precious then, must connect both the creation and reception of the images therein. To do so would require a dialogue between Precious and critiques of Black images that have preceded it. The film captivated audiences during a time of racial recalibration in our nation and since its images may recall regressive representations of blackness I would have to include clips that depict these early representations. The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) are useful as they provide visual templates for Black American stereotypes. Because Precious is now a celebrated cultural artifact, it begs the question -- what does this film add to the conversation about race?
"There is no just way in which the past can be quarantined from the present. Past and present inform each other, each implies the other..."
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993
The existence and preponderance of Black stereotypes complicate any representation of Black characters, even by Black filmmakers. Nelson George in a Village Voice article turned book notes that "Group self-definition is always tricky," explaining that, "It's easy to turn people into caricatures or distort the complexity of individual experiences." As an educator, aware of how complicated it is to depict unappealing Black characters -- I would have to discuss how modern constructions of Blackness may well recall many of the negative images that came before. One powerful example of this would be the controversial Vogue cover photograph from April 2008 by Annie Liebovitz -- featuring LeBron James and the model Gisele Bündchen. The photograph for some, harkened back to stereotypical images of the Black male or "Black Buck" as well as to the metaphorical image of the savage man-beast depicted in the film King Kong (1933). This debate took place in the media with a USA Today article calling the cover image "racially insensitive." This reinforces the idea that images do dialog with each other -- whether intended or not.
Precious is an abused child, and I would ask students to analyze how her circumstances are defined in the shot where her father rapes her in her darkened room as her mother, Mary, watches in the lighted doorway in the background. I would compare it to a shot from Citizen Kane (1941) where Kane's parents argue over his fate with Mr. Thatcher while the boy plays -- center screen -- outside in the snow. I would then lead a discussion prompted by the question "in what way is each child depicted as the "center" of the story?"
I would then have to draw my students' attention to the depiction of father in Precious. The Black male is arguably one of the most stereotyped characters in American film and strikingly, Precious's father is recognizable in Bogle's description of the Black Buck in Birth of a Nation. Bogle describes the characters as "psychopaths... always panting and salivating," and notes that "Griffith played hard on the bestiality of his black villainous bucks and used it to arouse hatred." A great deal of narrative time in Precious was devoted to abuse, rape, and incest -- what Armond White referred to as "an orgy of prurience." I would also turn to other texts such as Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth to help students examine the father's character. "The colonized man" Fanon writes, "will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people." I would as students if this what we were witnessing?
"Black films were also subject to critical interrogation. Since they came into being in part as a response to the failure of white-dominated cinema to represent blackness in a manner that did not reinforce white supremacy, they too were critiqued to see if images were seen as complicit with dominant cinematic practices."
bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, 1992
What was dramatically different about African American cinema in the 1980s and 1990s was the time spent understanding individual characters as well as their circumstances. By using clips from Leslie Harris's Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992) or Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991), I would illustrate how films from this period humanized even their most unappealing characters. Then I would ask this question: are the images in Precious an indictment of Blackness? Barbara Bush offered one perspective, acknowledging that her one problem with the film: "I think it stereotyped Precious, as a black. . . . And I hate that, because it isn't just blacks, it's everybody. . . . It is an American problem."
There are many ways to interpret Precious. I acknowledge that Precious is about the darkest of human tragedies and, yes, depicts a horrible truth. The well-crafted art of film is always fiction presented as an artifact of truth. Pablo Picasso once said, "art is the lie that reveals the truth." I would encourage my students to question the film Precious particularly in regards to the film's representation of Blackness and Black life.