Mo’Nique’s Victory Grew Out of Tragedy

Mo'Nique's Victory Grew Out of Tragedy for urban faithMo’Nique’s Oscar-winning performance in Precious came from a dark place in her family history. Say what you will about the actress and the movie, her Academy Award victory caps the unlikely rise of a black woman who turned personal tragedy into professional triumph.

Well, Mo’Nique did it.

The movie, Precious, for which she won the Academy Award for supporting actress, may have made us uncomfortable, but doggonit, Mo’Nique did it.

The sadistic way in which she’d make Precious, played by fellow Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe, wait on her like a slave and tell her that she wouldn’t amount anything. The pain and rage in her bloodshot eyes as her chapped lips sipped a cigarette bud revealing yellowed teeth. Mo’Nique, who broke through showbiz as a foul-mouth standup comedian, was absolutely believable as a dramatic actor.

And I’m sure she believed the Oscar would come.

By now you know Precious, based on the novel Push, is about an illiterate teen mom who triumphs after having been abused by just about everyone. She’s ridiculed at school and in her neighborhood. Family life is even worse. Her young child and newborn are from her father, who raped her. Her mother is arguably the most abusive and least sympathetic character in the movie. This is the role Mo’Nique worked into an award-winning performance.

The movie caused a stir, even anger, because it, yet again, put on display a highly dysfunctional black family. Even C. Jeffrey Wright, CEO of UrbanFaith’s parent company, chimed in about what many viewed as the movie’s lopsided portrayal of African American life. During the Oscar Night edition of The Barbara Walters Special, which aired before the 82nd Academy Awards, Mo’Nique addressed this. Abuse is “colorless” and that the actors just happened to be black, she said.

True, abuse and other dysfunctions exist in families of all ethnicities and races, but black dysfunction is too common in movies and throughout the media. This gives the impression that dysfunction is the only state of the black family. I realize family hell sells better at the box office, so I’d settle for more positive black characters in these same movies. Write in a black doctor who has it together, or an honest black business owner.

Truthfully, there are few families that are not dysfunctional and this is what many of us spend our careers — our lives — trying to overcome.

Mo’Nique’s Oscar winning-performance came from a dark place within her family. She was abused as a child. During the Walters interview, Mo’Nique discussed the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of an older brother beginning around age 7. Fear kept her from telling their parents until about age 15. Her brother went on to abuse someone else, and served prison time.

Mo’Nique modeled her Precious character after him. She told Walters that the last time they spoke and were together was as adults while she was in the hospital after birthing twins. Visiting, her brother picked up and held one of the babies in his arms. Bad move. I can only imagine the rage the welled inside Mo’Nique. She wasn’t specific about the encounter, but must’ve torn into him. With therapy, and the help of her husband, Mo’Nique released the burden, she said.

Faith is about believing deeply in what you can’t see despite the reasons to doubt that are before you. You can’t please God without it. As Mo’Nique’s name was announced as the winner, she paused and then stood and composed herself before heading to the stage. In her acceptance speech, she invoked the late Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Oscar back in 1940, and alluded to the politics that typically go along with being nominated for an Academy Award — politics that Mo’Nique boldly refused to partake in. It was at once clear that this Oscar victory — and her involvement in Precious — was much bigger than just playing a role in a movie. As I watched, I thought about all those rough times she must’ve endured, and perhaps, like Precious, how she might’ve wanted to give up. How Mo’Nique must’ve willed herself to focus not on the immediate trials in her personal life and career, but on the future rewards she envisioned.

You may not like her opinions or lifestyle choices, but Mo’Nique did it. She kept the faith.

“To every last person that celebrates a victory of being abused, and you can stand baby, congratulations,” she said backstage to the thank you cam. “…To the whole world I simply say I thank you and let’s start loving again, unconditionally.”

Now that’s a storyline we ought to be comfortable with.

Why ‘Precious’ Is Dangerous

Why 'Precious' Is Dangerous for urban faith

Gabourey Sidibe plays the title role in Precious. Photo © Lionsgate

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 Indians feel the same way about 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.