This post is dedicated to the four-year-old girl I met on the bus home from class earlier this week. We talked about Dora the Explorer, her older sister’s boyfriend, her alter ego Juanita, and sang “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.” She also named the women on the cover of Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women as Cultural Readers. A reproduction of Varnette Honeywood’s Snuff Dippers, the women depicted are now named Sophia and Danielle, respectively. This girl is the fucking future.
When I lived in Austin, I watched several Tyler Perry movies with my friend Erik. Perry is an industry unto himself, so to avoid watching his films seemed short-sighted to us. The politics of avoidance shaped and raced reception practices around his films. Perry’s consumer base are people of color, particularly within African American communities. Erik wanted to have some understanding of these movies because many of his co-workers are fans of Perry’s films. Thus, he wanted to be able to discuss them if they ever came up in conversation at work. I believe he saw Perry’s entire filmography, including filmed performances of the stage plays, which include intermissions, flubbed lines, improvisations, musical numbers, and discussions from Perry about moral lessons and thematic elements.
As a media studies scholar, I’m troubled by the racial politics of distinction and selection when choosing not to see a Tyler Perry movie. Pretty much all of the white people of my acquaintance, both within and outside of the academy, refuse to see Tyler Perry movies primarily because of the charges of sexism, homophobia, and misogyny led against his work. I can certainly understand the rationale behind the boycott, especially from within communities of color. At least one of my girlfriends refuses to see any of his films, in part because she is bothered by her parents’ fandom. Womanist Musings’ Renee Martin argues “Perry has said on many occasions that Madea is his version of a tribute to Black women, and I for one would much prefer he erase us.” Public figures like Todd Boyd seek to turn it such resistance into a social moment.
Likewise, I certainly understand the tacit privilege and threat of appropriation that occurs when white filmgoers take up a Tyler Perry film. While some white critics are engaging with Perry’s work in thoughtful ways, as Matt Zoller Seitz does in an essay that compares Perry’s work to Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography, these contributions should be problematized rather than taken as given. I’m also not discrediting claims against homophobia, sexism, and misogyny, as they are foregrounded and embedded within many of Perry’s films. Successful women are constantly vilified or pathologized in ways that play directly into black patriarchy. The threat of male emasculation looms so large it begs psychoanalytic intervention. Finally, the ways in which violence against women is played as high melodrama and violence against children is figured as slapstick is troubling, though perhaps speak to larger cultural histories of discipline and racial difference. Nor do I want to suggest that Tyler Perry’s films speak to or stand in for universal black experience, as no such thing exists.
But in my field, there is no justification for seeing a shitpile like Transformers because it is a successful film franchise (and thus a potential conference paper or book chapter) but avoiding a financially lucrative yet potentially problematic set of film titles and franchises from a controversial black male director. Even when Perry’s work is discussed in these contexts, the conversations can be disappointing. The logic behind such selectivity reminds me of an anecdote Kristen Warner shares at the beginning of her Flow column on black women and affect on reality TV. At a conference panel she attended, a presenter spoke on the Real Housewives franchise, but made clear that she didn’t watch the Atlanta season. Warner continues, “While others laughed, I was inwardly infuriated because, honestly, in a franchise based on ridiculous women behaving badly, how can one distinguish which cast is the worst?” Exactly. The troublesome rhetoric of positive representations and resultant policing and exclusionary strategies are at work here.
Though my screenings with Erik were casual, we knew as white twenty-somethings that there might be something potentially anthropological about what we were doing. Though we did see Why Did I Get Married Too in theaters, we decided against seeing it opening weekend, as it coincided with the Texas Relays. Instead, we saw it a few weeks later at my neighborhood movie theater. We also saw Why Did I Get Married, Daddy’s Little Girls, Medea Goes to Jail, Madea’s Family Reunion, and I Can Do Bad All By Myself.
Of Perry’s films, I like I Can Do Bad All By Myself the best. For one, it’s got Byron (Frederick Siglar), a charming kid who delivers some of the best reaction shots I’ve seen in recent memory. For another, it boasts cameos from Mary J. Blige and Gladys Knight, two black female artists whose music has been transformative for many black women. More importantly, Taraji P. Henson is excellent as April, a night club singer and alcoholic who is charged with and later embraces caring for her nephew Byron and his siblings Jennifer (Hope Olaidè Wilson) and Manny (Kwesi Boakye) after their family falls apart. Given the recent exclusion of the Academy Award-nominated actress from a TV Guide cover story for Person of Interest, such demonstrations of her formidable talent serve as necessary reminders. Of Perry’s work, it might also be the most female-positive and least pathological.
A couple of years ago, I attended a conference panel presentation that featured a prominent communication scholar who presented on Perry’s films. Apart from failing to demonstrate basic knowledge of Perry’s filmography or any interest in acquiring it, what disappointed me most about the scholar’s presentation was that she refused to dialogue with any discourses around fan and reception practices that might challenge her extremely negative reading of his work. While reading Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women As Cultural Readers for class this week, I wondered how black women would discuss texts like the Medea series, The Help, or Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. Thankfully, such discourses are constantly evolving online.
What strikes me most about Bobo’s book is the role translation plays in black women’s reception practices. In a chapter focusing on black women’s discourses surrounding Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, the director recalls resistance toward having the film subtitled. She discusses her initial inability to engage with Miller’s Crossing because it took her a bit to adjust to the characters’ thick accents, then adds “You may not understand every sentence but you’ll surely get the general idea, the sensibility of the whole thing. We’ve grown up translating. We’ve had no other choice.” This makes me reflect on teaching, both as a college instructor and as music history workshop facilitator for Girls Rock Camp. With GRC, I seek to challenge the organization’s riot grrrl origins, how genres are privileged, how fan cultures around musical genres are raced, and acknowledge the reality that riot grrrl might not mean much to black female campers’ reception practices or lived experiences. I’m completely fine with this. As a feminist, I strive toward building a curriculum of inclusion where black girls can participate and influence. Translation will always be a part of this process, though hopefully we can think of it as an invitation rather than a challenge.
If we lived in a just world, Jill Scott would be a superstar. She’s got presence, people. It was obvious to me she was a star when I saw the music video for “A Long Walk”. It was probably obvious to her friends who encouraged her to pursue acting in the early 2000s. This has culminated in several television and film roles, most notably in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? series and HBO’s 2008 series No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The camera loves her face, she’s got a great voice, her eyes draw you in, she’s got a movie star smile, and her easy gait suggests someone magnetically comfortable with who she is. Actually, that’s probably why she isn’t as famous as her star power seems to demand.
That said, I think there’s something to be said for celebrities who demonstrate mainstream crossover appeal while remaining somewhat under the radar. While I wish fringe appeal wasn’t all but guaranteed to a confidently fat black woman in our wrong-headed media culture, I think there’s something great about someone at once seeming true to themselves while radiating star power with eminent potential to permeate beyond a niche audience.
But you know what? I still call bullshit on Scott’s peripheral celebrity. Because her performance as Precious Ramotswe in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency could have catapulted her to stardom. It’s not a game-changing procedural. Often the dialogue, apparently lifted directly from the Alexander McCall Smith book series on which the show is based, is leaden and the characters are quite broad. But it has a lot to recommend and could appeal to a mainstream audience with little effort. Despite some shortcomings folks seem to have no trouble overlooking in other procedurals that aren’t as good as The Wire, I found the show to be pretty likable. Scott’s performance has much to do with that. However, you wouldn’t know it, because the series opened to positive reviews but ultimately got no love come awards season. So maybe I can convince you, or your mom, or that coworker who loves Burn Notice, or the book club you’re in that read the books to catch up with this seven-episode series. I’ll do this in list form. I’m swiping a bit from a friend’s personal blog, because the entry encouraged me to watch it. But see? It just goes to show you that I’m not alone in being taken with Jill Scott and wishing more people recognized her considerable talents.
1. No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency stars a confidently fat black woman playing a confidently fat African woman. Yes I’m repeating myself. I wish I didn’t have to. But that’s pretty remarkable. And unlike her character in the first installment of Why Did I Get Married?, at no point is Ramotswe apologetic about her size or shown eating as a means to pathologize her figure. She often sets people at ease by mentioning that her figure is “traditional” and conventionally attractive to older beauty standards within African culture, but I think she also just really enjoys her body. Yes, I wish she didn’t always have to remind people that fat women are super-sexy. I’d imagine Jill Scott feels that way too.
2. Ramotswe inherits land in Gaborone from her somewhat distant deceased father and decides to use it to help people (particularly women) in her surrounding community with legal problems and matters of the heart. Her reasoning is that women always know more about what’s really going on in their neighborhood than their male counterparts, who are usually in charge. She’s also dedicated to her job and really cares about providing a service to her community. She’s also a complicated woman with unresolved business with her ex-husband, a surreptitious attitude toward marriage, and the affections of a sweet car mechanic (JLB Matekoni, played by Lucian Msamati).
3. Ramotswe’s tightly-wound assistant Grace Makutsi is wonderfully played by Anika Noni Rose, perhaps best known for her work in Dreamgirls and The Princess and the Frog. Makutsi prides herself on superlative organizational and administrative skills, often noting that she scored 97% on her secreterial school exit exam. She also lost positions at more lucrative offices and law firms because she takes her job more seriously than some of her class mates, who view their work as stepping stones to becoming the boss’ mistress or next wife. Though the women encounter personality differences and struggle to keep the agency afloat, their professional relationship develops into a close friendship as the story develops. Also, if we’re looking for a black female nerd, I elect Makutsi for consideration. She’s also got a geek chic wardrobe that could give Glee‘s Emma Pilsbury a run for her wardrobe department’s money. If there’s a blog or a tumblr devoted to Makutsi’s style in the spirit of What Claudia Wore, I’ll gladly subscribe.
4. Yes, some of the supporting characters are rendered as flat and cartoonish. Makutsi suffers from this, as does BK (Desmond Dube), a gay hairdresser who runs a salon neighboring the agency. However, the actors beat the page and fill in their roles in surprising, poignant ways. Sometimes, the scripts meet them there too.
5. The series was filmed in Botswana. There is such a difference between location shooting and filming it at a studio (for a counterexample, hazard to watch five minutes of Outsourced, which fails at attempting to pass Studio City off as an Indian marketplace). Apart from employing local actors (which might allay anxiety about a predominantly white production staff), the city itself expands and deepens to create the show’s distinct sense of place. The women pursue their case work and go about their daily lives in it and in doing so, Botswana’s dimensions and complexities continue to reveal themselves. Charles Sturridge, Tim Fywell, and the late Anthony Mingella draw upon the cityscape’s distinct look and feel to create a larger universe in which these stories established themselves and unfold.
So seriously, there’s only seven episodes and Jill Scott’s delightful. What are you waiting for?
Before going into my thoughts on a movie that I already feel I’ll need to qualify and back into when composing my analysis, let me stress a few things.
1. I haven’t read Sapphire’s Push, which is the movie’s source material. Thus I can’t say how faithful an adaptation Precious is. I intend to read it, and welcome anyone who has a copy they’d be willing to lend to expedite the process. As you can imagine, it’s hard to find a copy at any of the local libraries right now.
2. I am a middle-class white lady, so I know I have some biases and blind spots. They may affect my analysis of the story about an abused, illiterate, fat, dark-skinned, HIV-positive black girl named Claireece Precious Jones living in 1987 Harlem during the height of the AIDS and crack epidemics who is placed into an alternative school called Each One Teach One after being impregnated by her father with their second child.
3. Regardless of the criticisms I’ll detail later in the post, I think you should see this movie. Yes, you. Especially those of you who are scared that its content will be too overwhelming, exploitative, or another cinematic example of poverty porn. If you care about the tenuous presence of African Americans in media culture, you should see this movie. If you care about the plight of marginalized groups, you should see this movie. If you are willing to back up these concerns with volunteerism, monetary contributions, or your industry, you should see this movie. And if you think that these kinds of personal and systemic hardships don’t actually happen to young people, you should definitely see this movie. While I agree with Teresa Wiltz and thus don’t abide by Oprah’s line that “everyone is Precious,” I’ve had too many friends and family members recount traumatic personal and professional experiences weathered by themselves, loved ones, peers, neighbors, and students to think otherwise.
I always like to enumerate the positives first.
1. Gabourey Sidibe is an awesome find as the lead. And I know it belabors a perhaps insulting point that actors are not their characters, especially in a role author Sapphire intimated to Katie Couric would have been near impossible for any survivor to play, but I find it comforting that Sidibe is happy, proudly fat, and confident. It’s evident in her talk show appearances on Conan O’Brien that she’s got the approachable star power of an A-list celebrity.
Here’s hoping that Sidibe’s performance will lead to further opportunities. I’d be so sad if she won an Oscar for this role, only to be sidelined by tokenistic casting practices. I already saw Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson light up the screen in Dreamgirls, only to play Carrie Bradshaw’s personal assistant (and imaginary friend?) in the Sex in the City movie.
2. Mo’Nique deserves the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Precious’s mother Mary, who neglects, emotionally bullies, and physically abuses her daughter.
In addition to also allowing her partner (who we never fully see on-screen) to sexually abuse and twice impregnate their daughter, she also forces her daughter to engage in sexual activity with her, largely out of punishment for a gross, patriarchal misinterpretation of what consensual partnership is and should be. It’s a challenging, potentially damaging role that many actresses shied away from out of an inability to plumb terrifying emotional depths or out of an uneasy feeling that taking on this part could be misconstrued as promoting the idea that black women are sub-human.
To me, Mo’Nique does a superlative job negotiating how this woman is considerably flawed, morally compromised, and victimized by a system that encourages women of oppressed racial and economic groups to stay marginalized by over-relying on men, competing with other women and girls to keep undeserving men, keeping them bracketed off from educational and professional advancement, and convincing them that they don’t deserve better and neither do their children. While many people may gesture toward Mary’s knockdown fights with her daughter or her transparently fake show of domestic stability for visiting social workers as evidence of Mo’Nique’s powerful performance, I’d offer up scenes where Mary sits comatose for hours in front of the television or gives her profound confession about her daughter’s home life to social worker Ms. Weiss (played by Mariah Carey) at the end of the movie. These moments are informed by a series of photographs kept in a scrapbook that show Mary as a happy young woman in high school, with her partner, and her baby girl, and later distant and resentful of her, suggesting how mother and daughter came to their destructive relationship. In these moments, whether conveyed with glazed eyes, frozen in damning snapshot, or through a bewildered face made paler by make-up, we see a woman depressed and trapped. It becomes suggested that she is perhaps haunted by the same cycle of domestic abuse her daughter has lived through and at times as much victim as victimizer.
3. As this was a concern for many skittish filmgoers of my acquaintance, I’ll say that from my perspective, I didn’t find this movie to be exploitative. Though I had issues with how director Lee Daniels would abruptly shift aesthetics and cinematic style, I appreciated that this movie wasn’t, say, all Dogme all the time. For one, surrealist flights of fancy is part of Precious’s coping strategy. For another, I think a movie that dwelt so much of the horror of the protagonist’s situation and environment would have veered the movie into exploitation, and may have also suggested that an authentic poor, black experience (whatever that is) necessitates aesthetic ugliness over compositional beauty. I found the unsettling moments to be handled sparingly, oftentimes providing a necessary jolt while also suggesting that Precious isn’t only her pain. The most effective moment for me was when Precious is given a reading tutorial by her teacher and, in a her embarrassment and frustration, returns to a particularly explicit memory of her father attacking her. Another noteworthy moment occurs when Precious is getting ready for school and sees a slim, blonde white girl staring back at her in the mirror — a chilling example of how girls of color may internalize normative standards of feminine beauty.
4. Man, did I ache for Ruby, Precious’s young, inquisitive neighbor who is clearly another abused child and is seeking comfort and friendship with a girl who is too damaged to see a kindred spirit. Some people laughed at Ruby in the screening I attended, especially in one scene when Precious is running away from Mary with her newborn in hand and knocks the girl over. Fuck you, I say. My only hope is that somewhere, later, off the page and reel, Precious and Ruby reconnect.
5. I’m assuming this is lifted from the book, but I was struck by how Precious is a proud and protective mother to children who, due to incest, are also technically her siblings. Watching her hold her mentally disabled daughter or breast-feed her infant son, I found myself confronted by how my own feelings about reproductive rights are informed by racial and class privilege and how the notion of “choice” is subjective. While I might personally be horrified at the thought of giving birth to children formed from prolonged familial abuse and would thus potentially remove our relationship, Precious views these children as her own. Mercifully, the movie does not judge her for feeling this way, and forced at least one (middle-class, white, female) spectator to think more critically about her politics.
6. As this is a music blog, I found the incorporation of music culture to be applied to interesting effect here. For one, there’s Daniels’s decision to cast successful recording artists like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, drawing out believable and unassuming performances that belie their celebrity and attendant glamor.
For another, there’s the soundtrack’s song selection, which emphasizes contributions from jazz, soul, and R&B artists, many of whom are women of color, perhaps a reflection on the majority of the movie’s cast (thanks for the link, Kristen!). Some of the songs listed here are not period-appropriate and thus not heard in the movie, perhaps serving as inspiration and putting the movie and its source material in dialogue with generations of female artists. However, Mary J. Blige’s stirring “I Can See In Color” serves as the movie’s theme and is even featured in the scene when Precious finally flees her mother’s apartment. I hope she wins an Oscar too.
Then there was stuff that made me itchy in a bad way.
1. The opening credits are written in Precious’s semi-literate hand, then clarified through parenthetical notation. I don’t know if it was the result of studio meddling, but I found this borderline insulting. For one, it seems to imply that potential audience members can’t do basic decoding. For another, it undermines the protagonist’s particular system of written language, suggesting that it is improper, inscrutable, and in need of intervention from more literate, unseen sources.
2. As suggested earlier, this movie is visually beautiful, but stylistically uneven. At times, this is a blessing. Other times, Daniels’ heightened visuals were annoying, making me think more about how the director executed a shot than what the protagonist was going through in the moment. While I’d have to read the book to determine whether this is true to the source material, I found the most distracting moment to be when Mary visits Precious in a half-way house after leaving home and reveals that her daughter’s father has AIDS. This news and its personal implications hit Precious instantly, but the movie detours into another fantasy sequence where the lead imagines herself at a glitzy premiere. While this may be true to how Precious processes this in the book, the scene in the movie seems to suggest more about the director’s power over the camera than the protagonist’s complex emotional responses to trauma. I would have preferred to stay with Precious in that moment, but maybe some feelings are off-limits to the viewer. It just registered to me as an icky moment of authorial control.
3. As others have noted, the variance of African American skin tones and how certain shades align with class positioning is a source of contention here. As Precious is a dark-skinned black girl, it would stand to reason that her family would match her skin tone. This potentially sets up a binary wherein all dark-skinned characters are poor and uneducated. While this is challenged by the presence of Precious’s classmates, who vary in terms of racial and ethnic categories, the binary is evident with the social workers, who are educated, middle-class, light-skinned (often-multiracial) African Americans.
While Precious speculates about Mrs. Weiss’s background, the movie portrays her writing teacher, Blue Rain (played by Paula Patton), as a light-skinned, gay but somewhat desexualized, savior. If this isn’t clear within the narrative, the movie’s compositional elements make it explicit. How better to frame a middle-class, college-educated, light-skinned black woman teaching systemically disadvantaged girls than to cast a saintly glow around her through back-lighting? In this way, as well as how Precious navigates intersectional identity politics, A.O. Scott makes a case for how the movie is similar to The Blind Side, the Michael Oher biopic starring Sandra Bullock as his affluent and plucky adoptive mother, Leigh Anne Tuohy.
3A. I felt like Precious’s Each One Teach One classmates could have been better developed. Perhaps this is a limitation of the format, as feature films don’t have the time to flesh out characters the way that television can. The Wire devoted an entire season to four pre-teen boys navigating the Baltimore public school system, following them until the end of the series’ run. If only more time and resources were given in movies and television to create complex, multidimensional characters who are girls of color.
3B. I’m curious as to how viewers might interpret the dearth of male characters. I know that Ralph Wiley voiced his concern about with the lack of sympathetic men in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in “Purple With a Purpose,” an essay from Why Black People Tend To Shout: Cold Facts and Wry Views From a Black Man’s World. I wonder if similar criticisms can be made here. We only see Precious’s dad during traumatic flashbacks, and even then he’s almost entirely obscured by shadows (something I’m sure Richard Dyer would take issue with). Other than that, we have a nurse named John McFadden, played by Lenny Kravitz, who came across to me as kind of a jerk who thinks he can fix any problem with a serving of organic fruit or a greeting card filled with money.
4. There’s also some characters who are left unexplained. One is a classmate of Precious’s in the Each One Teach One who breaks down for Precious the difference between the word “insect” and “incest,” supposedly for comic effect. That she’s one of a few white characters and coded as queer should be given more context.
Of greater concern to me is Precious’s grandmother, who takes care of her firstborn, Mongo, who has Down Syndrome. At no point is it made clear how she feels or what she knows about her granddaughter’s home life or even what side of the family she’s on. I really wanted to know more about her and the relationships she’s cultivated within this extended family.
5. Finally, the movie suggests that Precious’s final scene is triumphant, again suggesting further similarity with The Blind Side. But it’s also a bit of a lie. The odds are still very much against her, as they would be for most semi-literate, economically disadvantaged, HIV-positive, teenage single mothers. Not impossible odds, and certainly better odds if her love of math was further nurtured, but long-shot odds that don’t often reflect statistically-supported realities.
Taking all of this into account, I’m heartened that movies like Precious are being made and hope that more media texts grapple with such subject matter and fund more projects with African American directors, actors, producers, and other personnel across racial and ethnic categories. The movie apparently broke $30 million domestically at the box office, which is no small thing for a $10 million indie covering such sensitive subject matter with or without Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry’s producer credits. While movie-going can hardly rectify systemic oppression, it can get us thinking about it and maybe (hopefully) work together toward fixing it.