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By Abdul Ali of Words Matter

Tuesday, December 22, 2009.

I’m not sure if there’s been a film in my generation that has been the object of so much mixed emotion, and perhaps vitriol, drawing a line in the sand along gender lines. Almost all of the guys that I know have talked about Precious at arm’s length. Some of us have even said “I’m not ready to see that film.” Yet my female friends have almost unanimously said “I got to go see it”, etc.

The movie’s been out for a few weeks now. Granted, I’ve been busy but I know I could have seen it sooner. There was almost an instant retreat when I saw the extra large dark-skinned black women featured prominently on film—a rarity for contemporary film. And this is unfortunate as the dark-skinned black woman is a part of all of us, so why the hesitation? I suppose it’s because the big-boned black women aren’t framed in a flattering way and this is a part of a larger narrative. Remember growing up we’d call the fat black girl in class “fat and ugly?” Seeing this film made me confront the inherent self-loathing that so many of us have inherited.

For starters, I’ve always felt that American film, Black American cinema in particular, was lacking in so many ways. It didn’t have the pacing of indie films that I so love. I didn’t treat its viewers as intelligent. There wasn’t much poetry or going on with the cinematography—as these are all things I look for in films, as well as literature. And of course, most black characters are written as flat, stereotypes, never truly inhabiting that space that we all know is human and difficult to categorize.

Add to that, in my entire twenty years of movie going there may have been only ten films worthy of discussion on an intelligent level. The rest of them seem to embarrass the race rather than illuminate audiences about black life.

Considering all of that, I said “what the hell” and went to see a 9:30 showing yesterday evening and I was instantly surprised. Surprised because I knew angry black women back home in New York who were that cruel to their children, who were that mentally ill, and who were that invisible to society at large. Then all of a sudden, I didn’t think much about all of the “stereotyping rhetoric” that has been programmed from reading Donald Bogle and taking literary criticism in college.

Instead, what I saw was a young woman-child who was curious, fierce, and longing to be more fully human. I didn’t cry or anything but there was great satisfaction seeing her fight back. And I was appalled that her mother would throw a television at her own daughter holding a baby.

If nothing else, this film raised the issue of mental illness and abuse in a way that we haven’t seen it before. Of course, there’s The Color Purple but it’s so dated that it almost feels a world away. Harlem in the 1980s feels very real and close. There still are young black men who disrespect women walking by. There still are depressed black women who are scarily codependent on the system. There are so many parents who are jealous of their children and don’t want to see them advance. And as hard as this is to admit, there’s so much sexual, physical, and psychological abuse that goes on. I can’t imagine the shame the survivors (not victims) of those abuses must feel daily.

And yet while I think Precious was ultimate important to see notwithstanding its technical flaws. Have you ever seen a film so ham-handed in stacking so many negatives on one character? Not only was Precious an illiterate, but she was obese, portrayed as less than attractive even though in her fantasies she was quite pretty and glamorous. She was raped twice from her father, poor, and to top that off she contracted the HIV virus. Something felt imbalanced. I don’t know maybe it’s just me.

I still insist that writers, filmmakers, directors, moviegoers (of all colors, education, class) demand more nuanced stories of black life. It’s disheartening to be a film lover and to never see yourself depicted on silver screen. I don’t know what to tell my five year-old when she gets a little older when she goes looking for herself on screen. Maybe precious can PUSH each of us closer to see black life mirror art. This film felt more or less like a documentary adaptation to a novel. And it was a good film but it had the potential to be great. (This might be another conversation.)

Abdul Ali is a poet and writer living in the District of Columbia. His work appears in the anthologies It’s All Love (Doubleday, 2008) edited by Marita Golden and Full Moon on K Street (Plan B Press, 2010) edited by Kim Roberts . His poetry has also appeared in Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Amistad, The Washington Post, and is forthcoming in Gargoyle.

His commentaries, reviews, and nonfiction appear in The Root, Scheme MagazineEssence, Black Issues Book Review, The Washington Informer, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, POST NO ILLS, Scheme, among others.


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