Precious and Lee Daniels: State of the Race

“I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” — Hattie McDaniel in her Oscar acceptance speech, 29 February 1940

In Lee Daniels’ new feature film Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, Gabourey Sidibe makes her screen acting debut playing Claireece “Precious” Jones, an obese, dark-skinned 16-year- old African American girl from Harlem. Barely literate and already the mother of two children born from an incestuous relationship with her crack-head father, Precious is kept prisoner by her mentally ill, lazy shrew of a mother Mary (played with intensity by Mo’Nique).

Because of the echo of slavery in the cinematic representations of black womanhood in Precious, the film is bound to polarize audiences. But does the film transcend the rigidities of black cinematic stereotypes? Herbert J. Gans author of the essay, “Race as Class”, might argue that stereotypical traits are used to “enforce class position, to keep some people ‘in their place,’” but I would contend that by using realism and shock, along with these “stereotypical traits”, Daniels actually reconstructs the traditionally-oppressed image of black women in contemporary cinema. [American Sociological Association 4.4 (2005): 17-21.]

But how can these dangerous roles become sources of identification for a range of spectators? And in this process, do the female characters of Precious perpetuate stereotypes, or do they defy them?

Armond White, film critic for the New York Press, claims in his review that “not since The Birth of a Nation as a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show, offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity” (“Pride & Precious”, 4 November 09) . Mary, the domineering, pigs-feet-and-collard-greens-eating, welfare-cheating stereotype on steroids, forces Precious to take on all of the housework — the cleaning, the cooking and the errands.

As if being a sexually, mentally, and physically abused slave isn’t horrifying enough, Precious rarely sees her offspring, who live with her grandmother so that the young woman’s time and energy can be spent taking care of Mary. The children are only brought over to the house by her grandmother when Social Service agents visit. They are then used simply as commodities to extract a paycheck from the welfare officer. The vile Mary uses everybody instrumentally, including her daughter, whom she actually watches get continually sexually assaulted from the age of three on, doing nothing to stop it. She isn’t above screaming at Precious’ three year old who was born with severe Down’s Syndrome (calling the child “an animal”) or blowing smoke into the face of a newborn and then tossing it onto the floor like a piece of human garbage (Daniels).

Both characters in the feature seem to simultaneously skirt parody and ethnic stereotypes precariously. Mary is one of the most putrid villains to be depicted on the silver screen. Precious isn’t a plaster saint, either; she’s brusque, reenacts her own abuse on others when the mood strikes, and is the kind of girl that if you sat next to her on the subway, you would probably avoid making eye contact with her at all costs. Ed Gonzalez, film critic at Slant Magazine, charges that director Daniels “emphasizes only the worst in human nature, and does so in a way that flatters rather than confronts the prejudices (and fetishes) of his liberal audience”. (“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire”,1 October 2009) So why would Daniels, a gay black male, ask his troupe to go to these extremes, playing to pre-existing tropes of black people as antiquated stereotypes such as slaves, inhuman monsters, mammies or magic negroes?

Perhaps one explanation of why these stereotypes linger can be found in Gans’ Race as Class, in which the author talks about “white exceptionalist treatment of African Americans [as] a continuing effect of slavery. They are still being perceived as slaves. Many hateful stereotypes with which today’s African Americans are demonized have changed little from those used to dehumanize slaves” (Gans). But this charge of white exceptionalism might be misplaced for Precious: as I stated above, the director is a black gay man; the cast is dominated by non-white characters, mostly women; the book upon which the film is based was written by a black radical feminist, Sapphire. Thus, it could be argued that Precious is a film that has escaped the patriarchal and racist stranglehold on feature films, suggesting why the female characters depicted in the film have made a major breakthrough in avoiding those “stereotypes” that Gans talks about.

White says the opposite, that “the spectacle warps how people perceive black American life— perhaps even replacing their instincts for compassion with fear and loathing,” but in my reading, by offering the audience images of African American women who either do not fit any kind of conventional cinematic mold (Precious) or shatter that mold through hyperbolic performance (Mary), Daniels is actually loosening a knot of nasty, lingering stereotypes about black women tied together by the prevailing heterosexual, white male Hollywood gaze over the course of decades. While White thinks that “Precious raises ghosts of ethnic fear and exoticism just like Birth of a Nation,” I argue that Daniels explodes this customary gaze by presenting a cast of women who, despite being sometimes flawed and unlikable, are a creative escape from the “mammy” stereotype fostered by white-dominated Hollywood culture that has plagued mainstream film since it’s inception.

Typically boisterous, full-figured, and subservient to her white employers, the mammy is an antiquated archetype that has existed in American culture since the time of slavery. This sassy domestic house slave, found often in tales of plantations in the Deep South, was first introduced to film audiences by D.W. Griffith in epics such as Intolerance and Birth of a Nation with Griffith company player Madame Sul Te Wan paving the way for future generations of mammy figures to exist on the big screen at all, usually with no lines.

The quintessential filmic “Mammy” was immortalized by Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind in 1939, with the actress later scoring an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress (an Academy first). While McDaniel’s win and character must be considered within their historical context (her performance and her win were revolutionary given the relatively dour state of African American civil rights in this era) and the actress should be given due respect for pioneering work in Hollywood, today a larger problem must be addressed: why do many contemporary films still traffic in this stereotype and its racist connotations?

As recently as last year, clear iterations of the mammy have been put to screen with perverse success. When news spread that Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson had scored a plum role in the Sex and the City film, people were abuzz that the all-white clique would finally be adding an African American to the ranks. Instead, in true mammy fashion, Hudson’s character Louise ended up as the token black employee of the fabulously white Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker). Carrie turned to the paid laborer to re-organize her life, listen to her carry on about her bourgeois problems and to solve dilemmas presumably high above her pay grade. Louise cracked wise, peppering her speech with antiquated black female vernacular phrases such as “girl” and “honey”. She wisely advised her boss on personal matters while Carrie stared at her with what looked to be a mix of white guilt and amazement that she was actually talking to a black person, pleased that she now employed (some might even say “owned”) her own personal “magic negro” to help bail her out of trouble and advise her.

The “magic negro” is a another stock, offensively racist stereotype that goes hand in hand with the mammy, and is a character type that propagates negative stereotypes about black culture. The “magical negro” embodies the racist qualities that non-black people project upon African Americans: they are seen as lazy, mentally or intellectually inferior, and in a position of servitude. The “magic negro” conveniently appears to the white lead, in film or literature, as a plot device, usually at a key time when they seek soulful, honest wisdom to overcome insurmountable odds.

For a clear example of a recent “magical negro” role, one has to look no farther than last year to another Hudson vehicle. The actress followed her role in Sex and the City with another stock role in The Secret Life of Bees, where she, along with four other African American women, took turns taking care of one white runaway. Hudson’s character Rosaleen spoke in a nearly unintelligible slang, preaching home-spun pearls of wisdom, existing solely to ensure the well-being of the white protagonist, and cooking up soul food.

Hang-ups Cast Aside

Hang-ups Cast Aside

All the old hang-ups are cast aside. There is no white male gaze, political correctness or misplaced “ignorant goodwill”, and the women exist as independent agents in their own filmic universe.

Whereas black and white audiences alike might have problems identifying with outdated tropes such as McDaniel’s “Mammy” or Jennifer Hudson’s miscalculated post-Oscar turns, the audience uses the characters as points of entry into the (mostly white) stories. There is a degree of identification with these kinds of characters because they are the idealized versions of what the popular, white consensus expects black women to be like, what it wants black women to be: docile, kind, self-sacrificing, bursting with love and ready to whip up a home-cooked meal and scrub the floors at any given second of the day. It is a particularly delicious bit of irony that Precious co-star Mo’Nique owns the rights to McDaniel’s life story.

By overlooking the significance of cinematic realism and counter-hegemonic performances in favor of tired re-depictions of “the mammy” or “the magical negro” in the aforementioned high profile films, filmmakers overlook the fact that they are presenting black women as objects rather than subjects, as extensions of politically-correct thinking that sees the mere presence of any black characters as a cinematic step forward, no matter what the character type is or what negative tropes it may reconstitute. The white gaze is satisfied simply by the mere presence of black characters only on the condition that they are non-threatening or somehow otherwise conforming to pre-existing molds, which bury black humanity in all of its complexity.

This sentiment is reminiscent of the concept of “ignorant goodwill”, the effect of which is described by author Bruce Robbins in his essay, “The Sweatshop Sublime” as the “flatten[ing] out the complexity and difference.” [PMLA by Modern Language Association of America (2002)] The same principle can be applied to the depiction of African American women in mainstream film. It has become nearly impossible to see a dynamic scope of black female characters onscreen – the view is highly limited and rarely challenged, particularly by the white heterosexual male directors that already have a monopoly on the plum directing gigs.

But with Daniels’ Precious, all of these old hang-ups are cast aside. There is no white male gaze, political correctness or misplaced “ignorant goodwill”, and the women exist as independent agents in their own filmic universe. Mary and Precious turn audience expectations on their ear by refusing to conform to any spectator’s preferred gaze, white or black. In showing every intimate emotional aspect of these two African American women, and refusing to conform to any pre-existing models, Daniels cleverly reinvents film history by leading his audience into a place where they must identify with women that they never would in real life.

According to Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, the spectator derives pleasure “through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, [which] comes from identification with the image seen”, which means that the audience must see itself in these characters in order to achieve an optimal viewing experience. Gonzalez’ lacerating review argues the opposite, that “throughout, you get a sense that Precious isn’t living out a recognizably human tragedy but, rather, a condescending drama queen’s notion of one”. (Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, Indiana University Press, January 1991)

But Gonzalez has perhaps forgotten that spectators can identify with alternative portrayals of black female characters if there is emotional truth to what they are seeing, and Precious relies on its spectators identifying with a more universal theme than racial identification: anyone who has faced a considerable degree of adversity will find themselves emotionally connected to the film even if it is far removed from their particular socio-economic galaxy. This is because the film’s center of gravity is not race, but rather the human struggle itself. Gonzalez calls the film “an impeccably acted piece of trash—an exploitation film that shamelessly strokes its audience’s sense of righteous indignation.” But Precious shows how women of color who are not perfect size twos do not have to be matronly, saintly, or exist simply to serve the white characters in the story. This time, the women of color are the ones propelling the narrative forward, for better or for worse.

There are not many films like Precious, which provoke intense reactions and heated discussion on race. But for those films that do become cultural phenomena which galvanize public attention around the topic of race, the analysis of those films frequently hovers around the topic of stereotypes that constrain, rather than release, black female subjectivity. Gans says that “because skin color is socially constructed, it can also be reconstructed”, which means that no racist image is ever set in stone, that any negative stereotype can be flipped into a positive one, and that it’s constitution can be changed at the epicenter.

Mary and Precious are memorable not because they exist as functions of white imaginations or as stereotypical archetypes, but precisely because they present a new range of African American experiences rarely exalted by film audiences or critics, and also because they paradoxically force a public dialogue on race through a narrative which transcends race. In eschewing political-correctness, these characters will keep a vital dialogue alive about the problematic, whitewashed, hetero-centric depictions of African American women in contemporary cinema. The women of Precious function as something Mulvey might refer to as agents who “get us nearer to the roots of our oppression [because they] bring an articulation of the problem closer.” Rather than being forced to comply with an archaic stereotype, they fight it tooth and nail.

When Gonzalez bemoans how “Daniels never grapples with how these institutions were built, and as such misses the chance to deliver a useful point about the ties between white guilt and black power. Rather than dissect how whites assume responsibility for black people’s social welfare, he writes them out of this story completely, simply asking those who may be sitting in the crowd to feel aghast, even titillated,” he forgets that white people don’t necessarily need to be injected into every story about black culture simply to satisfy a knee-jerk urge for all-consuming political correctness in art. Black and non-black audiences alike are able to identify with Precious’ struggle, are able to consider the complex depictions of black womanhood, and are able to confront their own misconceptions about the role of African American women in contemporary film through Daniel’s provocative (if harrowing) presentation of one fictional black woman’s experience.

Despite White’s assertion that “patronizing white folk” won’t understand the films themes and that “black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation, whereas too many white film habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority—and relief—it allows them to feel”, Precious destroys lingering stereotypes by making the spectator actually become an intrinsic part of the experience — it’s not just an “us” looking at a “them” process. This film is much more than just “one for the ‘Stuff White People Like’ canon,” as Gonzalez so primitively puts it. It’s unlikely that anybody would have made comparable observations about the work of Tennessee Williams, who is the most obvious forerunner of Precious’ audacious spirit. Credit must be given to Daniels and company for their full commitment to provoking a thoughtful discussion on the taboo, sacred-cow concepts of image, race, sexuality, gender, and class. People are talking about these issues in the public form anew, which could bring about real change for the better in the way black women are portrayed in film.