- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

“Precious,” the new drama from director Lee Daniels stirring up beaucoup Oscar buzz, has stirred up something else as well: controversy within the black community.

That the picture would inspire some bickering is not all that surprising. It is, after all, the tale of an illiterate, obese black teenage girl who has two children, both by incest. Unflinching and unrelenting, it can be a difficult film to watch.

It’s also, however, a tale of self-empowerment, a look at an oft-ignored segment of the population that exists in ghettoes and is all-too-often marginalized or treated with contempt.

That this downbeat film — which stars an almost all-black cast and was directed and produced by a black man — would even get produced is something of a triumph. Such films are not exactly rolling off the Hollywood factory line.

The critical acclaim “Precious” has received suggests the risk was worth it. The film received a 15-minute standing ovation at Cannes, multiple awards at Sundance and a People’s Choice Award at Toronto for Mr. Daniels, and a 90 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

On top of that acclaim comes a still-unfolding box-office bonanza: Though the movie grossed just $5.9 million last week, it did so in a tiny release of just 174 theaters, for an average of $33,762 per theater. That was almost double the average of the weekend’s highest-grossing picture, “2012.”

Yet these triumphs have caused consternation in some corners of the black media elite.

Writing in the alternative weekly the New York Press, Armond White unleashed this withering condemnation: “Not since ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as ‘Precious.’ Full of brazenly racist cliches (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken) it is a sociological horror show.”

Raina Kelley’s review in Newsweek is much more nuanced. “[I] understand people who complain about the lack of positive role models more than those who applaud just for telling this story,” she wrote. “In their admiration of Precious’s strength and resilience, these people also implicitly accept the status quo. … I’m tired of movies presenting black people as grateful to find a helping hand to rise above their abusers.”

The Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy, meanwhile, hated the film and seemed to wonder what, exactly, the largely white critical corps is getting out of the film.

“Maybe there is something to the notion that when human pathology is given a black face, white people don’t have to feel so bad about their own,” Mr. Milloy suggested earlier this week. “At least somebody’s happy. Sexual abuse is certainly an equal-opportunity crime, with black and white women similarly affected. But only exaggerated black depravity seems to resonate so forcefully in the imagination.”

Mr. Milloy and Ms. Kelley both hint at what seems to be the most upsetting part of “Precious” to a certain segment of the black community: the reaction of whites to the work.

In a way, it’s similar to the reaction of some black activists to Bill Cosby when he had the temerity to argue that some of the pathologies of the ghetto were self-inflicted. He was told he was out of touch, willing to sell out his own people in order to let white people assuage their guilt for the chaos in the inner city.

But above all, he was lambasted for airing the community’s “dirty laundry.” These problems exist, some of his critics were willing to admit, but it’s not your place to go running around telling the white folks that’s the case.

In this case, Mr. Daniels — as well as executive producers and titans of the entertainment industry Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry — are getting much the same treatment as Mr. Cosby. Mr. White, for example, describes them as “an unholy triumvirate” who “come together at some intersection of race exploitation and opportunism.”

It’s fair to say that none of these media moguls would argue that every home in the ‘hood is as messed up as Precious’ is. It’s equally fair, however, to say that far too many of them are and, perhaps, it’s time to wonder just how to bring those stories to light.

Sometimes the laundry needs to be aired out.

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