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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Are ‘Precious’ and ‘The Blind Side’ racist?

Is it impossible to make a movie about black characters that actually deals with, or at least touches on, issues of race and class that someone won’t accuse of being racist? Perhaps it is. For at the moment, we have the cheery, upbeat, feel-good The Blind Side, which, according to ABC News, black people prefer over the horrific, depressing, downbeat Precious. Even though:

“While everyone is fussing about ‘Precious,’ a movie like ‘The Blind Side’ is going to make a pile of dough and seems far more racially patronizing,” said [Chicago Tribune film critic Michael] Phillips, the white co-host of the syndicated show “At the Movies.”

“‘The Blind Side’ is telling a really good story about one African-American character completely through the perspective of the white family.”

“That’s absurd and patronizing in itself,” Armond White, chief film critic of The New York Press, said of Phillips’ comments.

Of course, White has been railing vociferously against Precious. From his review:

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 clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.

And that’s not the worst of what he has to say.

Are Precious and The Blind Side racist? Is one more racist than the other? Trickier still, should we give more creedence to black people when it comes to talking about whether a movie is racist or not? Or should be all feel comfortable talking about this?

(Phillips makes more sense to me in this particular argument, but then again, I’m white, and so is he, and maybe that does make a difference.)

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • David

    How are these movies questioned but something like soul plane or barber shop not?

    Would you consider White Chicks racist?

    Do comedies get a pass?

    Was Radio racist or just demeaning to the mentally ill?

  • LaSargenta

    Yes to this:

    Trickier still, should we give more creedence to black people when it comes to talking about whether a movie is racist or not?

    But, I wouldn’t assume that one film critic speaks for all black people. Like white people, black people all have a lot of different opinions.

    His example of the fried chicken is a brazen stereotype. But, when I saw the movie, at first I didn’t notice it because I was seeing this in the context of living in New York City and back in the 80’s there were a lot of neighborhoods where that was indeed the only takeout place around, no matter one’s race. Thinking about it later, I wondered.

    I think that if we are going to discuss this, there need to be some voices of color on this thread and white people (me, for one) need to sit back and just listen. On the other hand, I can’t expect someone of color to come along and start educating my ignorant self just because I asked…

  • Accounting Ninja

    LaSargenta beat me to it. My first thought about this was, if a black person says it is, I’m more likely to believe it than if white critics “tut-tut” at the movie. In fact, just thinking of all these white people getting to decide what’s racist…it doesn’t sit right with me.

    It like men getting to decide what is and what is not sexist.

  • LaSargenta

    I went looking for some other opinions and found that Leonard Pitts Jr. has written on Precious (not a film critic, but a great writer!). http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2009/12/in_defense_of_precious_–_leon.html

    “I wanna say I am somebody. I wanna say it on subway, TV, movie, LOUD. I see the pink faces in suits look over top of my head. I watch myself disappear in their eyes. … I talk loud but still I don’t exist.” — Precious

    Not everyone is singing hosannas.

    None of which is surprising. It might even be said that the YouTube poster and the others are simply working opposite sides of the same street. Any time art tiptoes too closely to the tripwires of racial stereotype, one can expect it to fire indignation among defenders of the African-American image on the one hand and smug, racist graffiti from online half-wits on the other.

    And Precious doesn’t tiptoe, it “stomps.”

    “Precious” is an ode to refusing to die. She is a girl struggling to live an unlivable life, 16 years old, illiterate, sexually abused by both parents, mother of two children (one with Down syndrome) sired by her father, physically and verbally beaten down by her monster of a mother and yet, somehow unable to give in to the idea that she is nothing and her name, nobody.

    She is that invisible girl, the one we decline to see because she doesn’t look like Halle, enunciate like Condi, inspire like Oprah, doesn’t ratify our faith in the inevitability of happy endings. There are more of them than we would care to know. They are not just girls, not just poor, not just black.

    I have to go into a meeting and can’t do more searching right now, but I’ll bet that more than a few regular posters here have seen something interesting written on Precious.

  • LaSargenta

    Whoops! Just as I hit send on my last post, I thought of another great writer who probably had an opinion about Precious: Ishmael Reed. He is here with his: http://www.counterpunch.org/reed12042009.html

    Hollywood’s Enduring Myth of the Black Male Sexual Predator
    The Selling of “Precious”
    By ISHMAEL REED

    “A niche market could be defined as a component that gives your business power. A niche market allows you to define whom you are marketing to. When you know who are you are marketing to it’s easy to determine where your marketing energy and dollars should be spent.”

    Defining Your Nice Market, A Critical Step in Small Business Marketing by Laura Lake

    One can view Sarah Siegel on “YouTube” discussing her approach to marketing. During her dispassionate recital she says that she sees a “niche dilemma,” and finds a way to solve that dilemma. Seeing that no one had supplied women with panties that were meant to be visible while wearing low cut jeans, she captured the niche and made a fortune. With five million dollars, she invested in the film Precious, which was adapted from the book Push, written by Ramona Lofton, who goes by the pen name of Sapphire, after the emasculating shrew in “Amos and Andy,” a show created by white vaudevillians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.

    (Ms. Lofton also knows a thing or two about marketing. Noticing the need for white New York feminists to use black men as the fall guys for world misogyny, while keeping silent about the misogyny of those who share their ethnic back-ground, she joined in on the lynching of five black and Hispanic boys, “who grew up in jail.” She made money, and became famous. They were innocent!)

    This movie is pretty deep in many things. The commentary outside the traditional film wirter environment is interesting.

  • Pollas

    I’m sorry, but the discussion of race does not belong to blacks only. Racism affects all races. Racism isn’t just white on black, it’s also black on white, black on hispanic, hispanic on black, asian on black, black on asian, white on asian, asian on white, and so on, and so on.

    I take every cry of racism on a case by case basis. The race card seems to get played a lot, to the detriment of all, IMO. Racism will always exist as it has always existed through human history. Like with rape, each false cry covers up another real case of racism and eventually creates cynisicm so that the problem doesn’t even come close to being resolved. We won’t solve the problem through hate and anger, but through education and compassion.

    I haven’t seen Precious so I can’t comment, but I’ve seen The Blind Side and thought it was wonderful. I don’t see anything racist about it and I definitely don’t think it was intended to be racist in any way. I think it’s an uplifting (and true) story about compassion and human fellowship. But that’s just my personal experience.

  • LaSargenta

    I think what you’re referring to is better named prejudice or bigotry as opposed to racism. There are bigots of every race, religion, and class but racism is a system or an ideology.

  • Accounting Ninja

    @Pollas: I didn’t say that discussion of racism belongs only to black people. What I said was, I would listen more to a black person who weighed in on Precious, rather than a white person. More so if the black person actually lived during that time. I trust their experiences more than others.

    Yes, racism happens across all races, but 1) the movie Precious is about a young black woman, so that’s the focus here and 2) in this country, whites are priveleged far more than any other ethnicity. “Reverse racism” means about as much to me as “reverse sexism”, in that there are black bigots toward white people out there, but all their bigotry in the world isn’t going to change the fact that white people still sit pretty on the privelege ladder.

    Re: false cries, race cards and such: it’s very easy to dismiss someone’s opinion (for example, whether Precious is racist) by claiming they are seeing racism where there is none, pulling the race card. But, I find that actually *listening* to black (or asian people, or women, etc) about their experiences really opens up my mind to perspective other than my own and makes me more aware of how my internalized (white) privelege hurts those around me by casually dismissing their feelings and being allowed to judge what is racist or not.

  • Hdj

    I have read nothing but good things about both of these movies. I look forward to seeing each film with an open mind and not with my hand ready to hit the racism alarm.
    If these movies where red zone leveled racist movies, don’t you think Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson would be organizing boycotts for these films?
    Mariah Carey a respectable urban relative, I doubt she would have done the film if she felt it gave blacks and other ethnicity’s a bad name.

  • Bluejay

    I haven’t seen either film, so I can’t really say anything in that area. But as a “person of color” (Asian), having lived in mostly-white communities in my late teens and twenties, I confess I’ve felt uncomfortable whenever people showed signs of “deferring” to me on issues of race, or seemed to feel that my opinions on such matters were more valid than theirs. I felt as if I were being made into a spokesman, which may not have been their intent but that’s how I felt. I’m a human being and my perceptions can be as flawed as anyone else’s; in the past I’ve branded certain behaviors towards me as racist when, on hindsight, I realize it was just my insecurity talking, or the other party and I didn’t get along for reasons that weren’t race-motivated at all. So I personally wouldn’t ask anyone to trust my opinion MORE than that of others; I would ask them to weigh it EQUALLY with others, taking into account the fact that we’re all imperfect and sometimes wrong, and make a fair judgment from there.

    I think listening is the key; I like listening too, and I like learning about white people’s perspectives. I think everyone, including whites, has the right to talk about race, and as long as we try to say things in the spirit of goodwill I think we can have a valuable discussion and learn from each other.

  • Accounting Ninja

    @Bluejay: clarification is in order! I too find it patronizing to put people on the spot as spokespeople for their races/genders. People are individuals. I know I hate it when someone takes what I say as representative of all women (or all feminists).
    I guess what I’m saying is I listen to someone if they think something is racist *without* getting immediately defensive or accusing them of pulling a race card. That’s not to say I can’t form my own opinion, but I also try to listen to someone if they are speaking from actual experience, because I am white and there are just some things I can’t know about racism like someone who experiences it.
    Also: I haven’t seen either movie either.

  • Mariah Carey a respectable urban relative, I doubt she would have done the film if she felt it gave blacks and other ethnicity’s a bad name.

    Actually there was a time back in the 1990s when Ms. Carey was herself quite controversial and former Village Voice columnist Lisa Jones once wrote an article pointing out the way Ms. Carey was marketed to appeal to the African-American market when she was first starting out and how her image then gradually changed to appeal more to white record buyers.

    I wish this wasn’t so because I actually like some of her music and I would like to think that a fellow Latin half and half would be above that kind of thing. But I suspect that may be just wishful thinking on my part.

  • I think that if we are going to discuss this, there need to be some voices of color on this thread and white people (me, for one) need to sit back and just listen. On the other hand, I can’t expect someone of color to come along and start educating my ignorant self just because I asked…

    Nor is there any guarantee that said person wouldn’t have his or her own prejudices. I’ve worked in too many mixed-race environments to pretend people are automatically good just because their skin doesn’t turn pink in the noonday sun. On the other hand, I’ve overheard way too often the type of stuff that white people say when they think no minorities are around to pretend that light-skinned people are all that noble either. As always, one should judge by the individual, not the group. But, of course, that tends to be easier said than done.

  • JoshB

    a fellow Latin half and half

    On the other hand, I’ve overheard way too often the type of stuff that white people say when they think no minorities are around

    I’ve heard lots of strawberry pickin’ dirty Sanchez wetback jokes from unsuspecting white folks.

    White dude: “I’d deport ’em all but then I wouldn’t have anyone to work on my lawn.”

    Me: “I’m half Mexican.”

    White dude: *horrified expression* “No way! You’re too pale!”

    Me: *grinning wide* “I know. It’s a hazard of computer geekery. What were you saying?”

  • Hdj

    I got no Mexican in me or Latino, but I’m from NJ, and every one outside NJ expects dudes from Nj to be wise talking guidos. I dont tan, I dont put tons of gel in my hair. Thats just an image that people assume me and other NJ dudes follow. Thanks to shows like “Sopranos” and currently MTV’s ” Jersey Shore”, they only help support this idea that NJ guys are all guidos.

    But back to Maria Carey and what the kind of criticism shes received. I don’t think it was right for the media to try to pin point who she was marketing her self to. The music she makes get picked up from all kinds of people.

    At the same time the topic here is were trying to pin point if these two movies are racist, and I feel the notion of this topic is no different then the way critics chastise Maria Carey and her music. its two movies with two black leads and its going to be seen by …. all kinds of people.

    Just because movies like ” Fast & Furious” and all those dreadful Tyler Perry movies, those stupid fucking dance movies, doesn’t meen that now that in the box office and all the Oscar talk is being directed on ” Blind Side” and ” Precious” , it doesn’t meen that all the movies we watch will be post-Crash movies , it doesn’t mean that Tyler Perry “was right” and should be allowed to make his movies blacker, so personally I feel as white person now is the time to let them go ahead throw what ever racial curve ball they can challenge audiences with.

  • LaSargenta

    @ Bluejay: I agree that everyone has a right to take part in a conversation on race. And where you wrote:

    I confess I’ve felt uncomfortable whenever people showed signs of “deferring” to me on issues of race, or seemed to feel that my opinions on such matters were more valid than theirs. I felt as if I were being made into a spokesman, which may not have been their intent but that’s how I felt.

    From where I stand, turning someone into a spokesperson for his or her race is also racist. When I said that I thought this discussion needed some commenters of color (at the least), I would hope that white readers wouldn’t then be taking just one person’s (or two people’s) words as what they could go off and say “Well, MY black friend says XYZ…” or effectively puts the responsibility for an entire group on the shoulders of which ever commentor deceded to weigh in.

    Thing is, in my experience, most white people can’t really engage in discussions about this without doing stuff that shuts down the voices of the people who are most directly affected by racism. That’s where my comment about just listening came from. Listening is also part of a conversation. And, before talking, listening is always good.

  • Mathias

    I do have a problem with Precious presenting “ligh-skinned” blacks as a force for good and “dark skinned blacks” as being pathologically riddled with problems.

    And i have a problem with The Blind Side reducing its main black character to a near-mute cardboard cutout.

    Can’t we just agree that both films have their own flaws and leave it at that? Why do people automatically make the jump that the filmmakers behind it must have malicious intent towrds the black community?

  • Accounting Ninja

    More thoughts on the Spokesperson phenomenon. It is the difference between these two scenarios:

    #1:
    Man/White Person, to Woman/Black Person: Well, you’re a woman/black person. What do you people like? How do I say/do this or that in front of you people?

    This is sexist/racist.

    #2:
    Woman/Black Person: I find that portrayal sexist/racist.

    Man/White Person #1: I don’t see that at all. I think you are being too sensitive. Etc.

    Man/White Person #2: I can see how it would be construed like that. What about it is sexist/racist? (Then, s/he actually listens to the answers with an open, non-defensive mind.)

    Thing is, in my experience, most white people can’t really engage in discussions about this without doing stuff that shuts down the voices of the people who are most directly affected by racism. That’s where my comment about just listening came from. Listening is also part of a conversation. And, before talking, listening is always good.

    This is a very eloquent version of what I’ve been trying to say. Listening without defensiveness. Because, likewise, no one is condemning all white people because a movie might be racist. Thanks, LaSargenta. :)

  • Knightgee

    So why are Armond White’s comments being given any credence? Isn’t he more or less a known internet troll? To comment on the films, I find The Blindside typical in that it’s just more Great White Hope stories told from the perspective of the white person and how they struggled to help the black man who was just so helpless until they came along. It’s offensive, but overdone and hardly new. Blacks, in my opinion are simply more responsive to it because we’ve been conditioned to reject movies that don’t give us nice, happy endings to our tales of woe and oppression because Hollywood is reticent about reminding us of these types of sore spots in our history without giving us cause for joy or inspiration before we leave the theater. We don’t like to be reminded that it didn’t end in sunshine and rainbows. In this way, if we take White seriously(if we must), he just ends up perpetuating that conditioning by tearing down Precious. He needs it to be racist misery porn because he doesn’t want to have to confront the fact that not even 20 years ago, this kind of thing did happen to black people and it didn’t always have a Hollywood ending, it rarely did in fact. I think that’s all this is. I don’t think either film sets out to be racist, but I think Precious speaks to something truer than Blindside, isn’t wrapped up in the Hollywood magic that makes the film seem inspirational instead of depressing and doesn’t leave you feeling better about yourself at the end, which is why people are not responding to it.

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