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Culture Warrior: Liberal Guilt

By  · Published on November 30th, 2009

Warning: This article contains major spoilers on the film Precious.

On a recent episode of Slate’s Culture Gabfest (direct link), the hosts of the podcast addressed the much-debated over issues surrounding the Sundance sleeper-hit/potential awards contender Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire as poverty porn. While I’m getting tired of any film or group of films accused as being exploitative dismissed with a newly manufactured “-porn” suffix (the more neutral made-up term “povertysploitation” might be more accurate for the argument they’re trying to achieve), there is some weight to the arguments made behind the term.

There are several components to this argument, which goes something like this: 1) Although the (fictionalized) nature of Precious’s impoverished life might be, by all counts, accurately loyal to its setting, the details of her poverty may come across as extreme, over-the-top, ham-fisted, and, arguably, exploitative through the creative choices of Lee Daniels; 2) If Precious does achieve its ends through exploitative means (in both style and content), Daniels quite potentially pulls a catch-and-release trick with the audience with his formal decisions, photographing Precious’s body (wide-angle lenses) and eating habits (frying pigs’ feet – this argument has been extended to accusing the film of affirming harmful racial stereotypes like when Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken (punctuating this scene, in the film’s penchant for showing everything, with Precious vomiting soon after)) in such a way that forces the audience to be comparably as disgusted with Precious as her abusive mother so explicitly is, except with an ultimate reward for the audience as they pat themselves on the back for having “endured” the film and thus becoming more “enlightened” about black poverty in America.

The central problem here is the potential for audiences to sympathize for Precious rather than empathize with her. There is hardly an objective conclusion to come from this, as one’s experience of Precious is determined largely by their own particular life experiences. But if the film is exploitative and over-the-top, then we as audiences are bestowed a stylistic and narrative partition preventing us from seeing the world through Precious’s eyes. Instead we simply observe her within her overbearing landscape, feeling more and more sorry for her as she is dealt each and every blow to her life. At a point it feels like Daniels, Sapphire, and co. have pulled out every trick in the book to do so. For me Precious became not so much an autonomous, multidimensional character as she did a stand-in symbolizing all possible factors of Harlem poverty: sexually and physically abused, illiterate, HIV-stricken incest victim, morbidly obese mother of two children, one of which has Down syndrome. The end result has an audience uttering, “oh, poor girl” rather than coming out of the film with new revelatory insight into conditions and circumstances poverty in America from a first-person point-of-view. This approach patronizes rather than enlightens an audience.

Daniels has stated that the film (unlike, say, the films of his executive producer Tyler Perry) is largely not intended for black audiences (rather inferentially intended for the more well-to-do audiences living in the metropolitan areas where Precious first opened in limited release). He stated on NPR recently that black audiences are already aware of cycles of abuse within American culture, and making the film for them would be like preaching to the choir. Rather, Precious is intended for those who have no previous knowledge of black poverty in America. But I come from the school of thought that dictates just because a filmic incident contains truth doesn’t mean it comes off convincingly on film. Daniels shoots the rape scene(s), for instance, in slow-motion in a way that emphasizes each violent thrust as Precious mentally travels to a happier place. On one hand, such stylization makes sense as this formal intervention is supposed to illuminate for us Precious’s subjective experience, her practices of escape necessary to survive in the face of such adversity. On the other, Daniels’s formal emphasis of such violent behavior makes it seem like he doesn’t trust his audience to be discerning enough to find the act abhorrent on its own terms, his style slapping us over the head in a way akin to Precious’s mother’s frying pan (and turning his back on a style of realism needed throughout such a film rather than employed only intermittently). Instead of a lasting social awareness about the film’s subject which could have potentially resulted in proactive measures taken by a now-enlightened audience usually not exposed to such “realities,” the movie becomes, like so many “socially aware” awards season films, a substitute rather than an inspiration for social action.

Films like these play to an audience’s liberal guilt regarding issues of race and poverty, but in the end Precious illuminates little, even potentially doing harm by affirming stereotypes in the process. The more mainstream and family-friendly The Blind Side can be read as a discursive reverberation of Precious intended for a far different filmgoer, centralizing issues of race and poverty into another largely symbolic African-American character in a way that allows (white) audiences to come away from the film feeling, in a very different way than Precious, better about themselves. Though The Blind Side plays explicitly to identifying characteristics of 21st century neo-conservatism – religious ideology (unproblematically) justifying and permeating everything, sports as analogy for life, and even an allusion to the right’s peculiar Obama-era theory of a contemporary America where racism is dead – it also plays to neoliberal white guilt regarding race and poverty in American culture that it attempts to exorcise through the tired Hollywood narrative of the white character assisting a black character in a way that renders the black character little more than a one-dimensional means to ultimately help the white character (made explicit by Sandra Bullock’s cringe-worthy line featured in the trailer, “I’m not helping him, he’s helping me” (or something like that) and previously established in films like The Green Mile (1999), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), and the Birth of a Nation of the new millennium, Bringing Down the House (2003) – this recurring character is often known as “the Magical Negro”).

Told often from the perspectives of white characters, my problem with many sports movies where the game is used as a microcosm for race relations (i.e., Remember the Titans) is that they usually take place historically before or during the progress of Civil Rights, and thus the triumph over adversity is framed as a triumph over racism itself, rendering such issues a product of the past. The Blind Side, while being, like many of these films, an “inspirational true story” (is there any other kind?), refreshingly takes place in the recent past and, at least on the surface, fleetingly addresses issues of white guilt or (in the film’s ultimately arbitrary narrative framing device) the possibility of the central family exploiting an impoverished boy’s talent for their own personal ends. But the film dismisses these possibilities as soon as they are brought up, favoring simplicity over complexity and even the (far more interesting) possibility of selfishness in otherwise well-meaning white upper-class generosity.

Unlike Precious, The Blind Side has the defense of being directly inspired by reality, but this doesn’t mean that its sentimentalities don’t come across any less false, unconvincing, or problematic. In affirming its conservative demographic’s belief in American upward social mobility, The Blind Side shows how one can move from rags to riches – but posits such opportunities as only possible through a wealthy white family and depicts the range of possibility for impoverished African Americans to lie exclusively on either side of a pendulum between drug dealing and professional athletics, with little room in between. Also, if upward social mobility is such a treasured and essential American institution, then why are stories like the one portrayed in The Blind Side so extraordinarily rare as to be made into a movie? Precious may be exploitative and play off the conservative nightmare of the lazy worst of the welfare state, but not since Taxi Driver has a film made so explicit how much of a myth the myth of upward social mobility really is.

Of course, problematic social politics within a film do not always deter the merit of the filmmaking or storytelling itself. I hate uplifting sports dramas, but I found The Blind Side to be one of the oh-so-redundant genre’s strongest and most entertaining entries, coming off nowhere near as bad as its trailer made it look. And Precious, to its credit, contains some truly amazing performances, never manufactures an easy answer to the complex problems it introduces, and contains a refreshingly cliché-free “inspiring teacher” story.

Race relations operate in our culture in a much more subtle way than they used to. But in the medium of film, overt depictions of race problems, explicit narratives of racism, or the depiction of a post-race society is far easier than addressing the complexity of how race really operates in contemporary society. Precious and The Blind Side both fail in my book in this regard. I argue for a third option, Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins’s mumblecore-esque indie about the day after a one-night stand that has already been discussed by Anthony Kaufman of IFC.com as a necessary counterpoint to Precious. The film features two central African-American characters that couldn’t be more different from each other, and subtly addresses relevant issues of race without using either character as a preachy sounding board for the director’s own point-of-view. It’s also just a really good little gem of a movie. Here’s the trailer:

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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