In adapting author Sapphire's difficult novel for the screen, director Lee Daniels is helping change the way spectators view African American women by deploying stereotypes and then exploding them.
"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.