The elevation of Black dysfunction and the invisibility of positive Black images are sending destructive messages about the reality of Black life, both to our young people and to those outside the Black community.
I just read two reviews of Precious, the Tyler Perry/Oprah Winfrey-produced movie that came out in limited release last weekend and opens nationwide later this month. This Sundance Award-winning film, which is based on a novel by the poet Sapphire, has been critically acclaimed, and it set a record by selling $1.8 million worth of tickets in just 18 theaters during its opening weekend.
Both of the reviews I read were in The Wall Street Journal. One by film critic Joe Morgenstern, the other by political analyst and author Juan Williams. Morgenstern calls the film “an inspirational fable about the power of kindness and caring” and praises it for its shocking beauty. Williams calls it a “depraved story” that “gives prominence to the subculture of gangster-lit novels,” which he goes on to rightly denounce. I resonated with Juan more than Joe.
The issue presented by films and books like Precious boils down to the continued visibility of pathological urban underclass archetypes in mainstream media and the invisibility of “normal” Black people. The discussions then ensue around issues of “fair and accurate representations” of who we are as a people, “glorification” of ghetto culture, “being real” and not burying “the truth,” and in the case of Tyler and Oprah, promoting the tell-all culture of “it happened to me, therefore we need to talk about it openly.”
Many years ago, a similar debate rose up around a play by the African American writers Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Mule Bone, which was the only collaboration between the two Harlem Renaissance legends, explored the class differences in post-slavery Blacks and addressed the divisive issue of color consciousness (“dark brown” vs. “high yellow”) in the Black community. The play was not produced during Hurston’s and Hughes’ lifetimes because of a disagreement over business matters, but some scholars also believe that part of the conflict had to do with an argument between Hurston and Hughes over how far to go in airing our “dirty laundry.” Written in 1930, the play was not officially staged until 1991. When I saw it on Broadway a few years back, I marveled at how little we’ve changed in the Black community. I also appreciated how time diminishes some of our drama.
In the case of Precious, Juan Williams points out that we now have the largest Black middle class in the nation’s history, as well as an African American president. What he implies but does not say forcefully enough is that there is a deceptive (and potentially destructive) invisibility in media of Blacks with “achiever values” (I borrow that term from Dr. Carl Ellis). This lack of positive Black figures in the media fails to provide a context for Precious and the many other media images we have to consume. The danger, then, becomes distortion both within the group (young Blacks, to their detriment, think this is pervasive “reality”) and without (Whites think these portrayals are reality too and establish within themselves opinions that range from racist superiority complexes to liberal pity and guilt).
Context is important. No one watches Saw or Kill Bill or Brokeback Mountain and makes judgments about all of American culture (no one except maybe the Mullahs in Iran). The truth is, African Americans are so scarce in major motion pictures that every widely released feature about us becomes a lesson and comment on the culture. Asians must confront this dilemma whenever the latest American-made kung fu or ninja movie hits the Cineplex. And I’m sure many Indiansabout Slumdog Millionaire and its “realistic” depiction of their country.
Precious may be a great movie — I hope it is. But our world needs to see The Cosby Show and stories with those kind of values made into great movies a few times before we can properly move from Precious to a complete discussion of who we are as a people.