'Precious': Has the Black Ghetto Changed?

Depending on who you are, where you grew up, and, frankly, the color of your skin, you'll most likely react in one of two ways to Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire. The film tells the story of Claireece (Precious) Jones and her struggle to survive a life overfull with misery. Pregnant for the second time with a child fathered by her own father, abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by her mother, Precious is also illiterate, obese, and friendless. Precious is not an easy movie to watch, and there are people in the black community who wish that you wouldn't. They insist that it is yet another stereotypical, demonizing representation of black people. The other camp, however, is thrilled to see a depiction of a young African-American woman that, while heartbreaking, is a portrait of the black experience that has been overlooked on the sunny horizon that stretches from The Cosby Show to House of Payne. Unfortunately, both of those reactions miss the movie's most searing message.

I wish I could agree with those who say Precious is just one more movie that feeds our vision of ourselves as victims. Even that would have been better than what lies underneath: the fact that black people have begun to accept as unchangeable the lot of those stuck in the ghetto. How else to explain that while the film is set in 1987, no one seems outraged that so little has changed in the inner city in the more than 20 years since? Precious is a period piece that feels like a documentary. The public-education system is still failing to raise graduation rates above 50 percent in the worst neighborhoods. The public-welfare system has yet to offer a real path out of poverty, and child-protection services is still struggling to protect children. While I agree that we've gotten too comfortable seeing ourselves on film as martyrs and underdogs, so what? The real devastation at the heart of this film is that it can't offer Precious a more concrete way out of her predicament. Yes, Precious is changed at the end of the movie, able not only to read and write but also to move toward a better life. But that isn't enough. I wanted just a hint that she would also escape the hell that was (is) urban poverty. Precious was lucky to find the alternative school that could help her. But that's fiction. In reality, there are far more Preciouses than there are teachers to help them. Movies such as this one allow us to forget that.

Still, I understand people who complain about the lack of positive role models more than those who applaud just for telling this story. In their admiration of Precious's strength and resilience, these people also implicitly accept the status quo. Precious's parents are certainly villains, but they are also red herrings. Her situation feels so extreme that we lose sight of the bigger picture. It becomes too hard to summon up any more outrage at the social worker who never figures out that something awful is happening in Precious's home, or at the well-meaning civil servant who can't help Precious beyond finding her a job for $2.12 an hour, or at the teacher who gave Precious an A-minus in English when she can't read. I'm tired of movies presenting black people as grateful to find a helping hand to rise above their abusers. Not because we've seen this movie before—starring Sidney Poitier, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, and even Matthew Perry—but because the story never changes. How about a "based on a true story" tear-jerker that ends with some tangible improvements in the lives of impoverished children? Where's the African-American Norma Rae or Silkwood? Hell, I'd even take an all-black remake of Brubaker. Anything that sends the message that one person—even one who is poor, black, fat, female, and abused—can change the system. Then I won't feel like my tears have gone to waste.

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