Feminist Philosophers

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“Are we all Precious?” December 14, 2009

Filed under: bias,race — jj @ 7:42 pm

What does the movie Precious accomplish?  Does it lead us to identify with the central character, as Oprah Winfrey, a producer, says?   Is the  movie going to inspire change, as its director asserts?

In a  worrying article,** Jim Downs argues that it is instead going to reinforce very negative stereotypes without leading to much positive social action.  His concerns might be useful ones to have a class discuss, particularly given how white critics  have praised it. 

Downs’ view  draws on how racism operates; white audiences will experience it as a documentary on black life.  Whites can see oppressed and abused whites without thinking all whites live like that, but their/our experience of movies about blacks is  different.  His strongest reason for thinking this has happened with Precious  employs the sort of analysis feminists sometimes use; he looks at what critics are surprised about when they meet the actor, Sidibe, who plays Precious. 

But the idea of Precious as reality creeps into profiles and interviews as journalists remark on how “articulate,” “composed,” and “well-spoken” Sidibe is. Roger Ebert writes: “You meet Sidibe, who is engaging, outgoing, and 10 years older than her character, and you’re almost startled. She’s not at all like Precious.”Why are they surprised? Why should she be like the character she plays? Why shouldn’t she be articulate?

On some level, the commentators watching the film came to believe that they were watching a documentary and not a performance at all…When white women from Angelina Jolie to Charlize Theron deliver awe-inspiring, Oscar-worthy performances of victimized, deranged, and scarred women, do commentators ever say how well-spoken the actresses are? Of course not, because, at the end of the day, they realize they are watching an actress at work.

The concern that the movie will not inspire change seems well-based:  there is no obvious mechanism for change for people to turn to.

Finally:  note that the remarks about Sidibe echo Biden’s remarks about Obama:  why, he’s clean and articulate.

**The article may not be available for  non-subscribers.

 

3 Responses to ““Are we all Precious?””

  1. Hart Says:

    I’m sure that you could never really rule out racism in cases like this, but I also feel like there’s a disanalogy between Theron/Jolie and Sidibe in that “Precious” is Sidibe’s film debut. If “Monster” has been Theron’s big break, if the first thing that anyone had ever seen of her was her performance in that film, I don’t think I would have been at all surprised had many people been struck by the difference between the character she plays and her actual person.

    For another example, take Leonardo DiCaprio, whom many people thought actually had down-syndrome because of his breakthrough role in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”; no one would think something like that now, but that’s because we all know who Leonardo DiCaprio is at this point. And in general I think it’s not at all uncommon to be pleasantly surprised by how different an actor is from his onscreen persona (I feel that way about actors like Daniel Day-Lewis all the time); it’s a testament to a great performance.

  2. jj Says:

    Hart, I’d agree were it not for the fact that he’s looking at the reactions of professional movie critics. They certainly know not to make certain inferences, and their comments make it more likely that indeed whites will experience it as a documentary.

    Still, you make a good point and it leaves me more undecided than I was.

  3. barcodesnow Says:

    That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that (an underlying assumption that black actors/actresses are like the characters that they play). The fewer black people that you know, the more you are likely to believe in narrow stereotypes about all black people – and the harder it will be to see the actor who played Precious as a (potentially) articulate, confident and bright young woman.


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