Movies – How “Precious”

“Precious” is a movie I’m on the fence about for a couple of reasons. African-American dramas are a lot like action movies; you can’t trust most critics because there’s usually something else at work in their responses. I’ve little doubt that the novel by Sapphire, “Push”, is grounded in reality and sincerely meant. But every time I see something from this movie, I’m painfully reminded of “Crash”, a movie that white people liked because they were afraid of coming off racist if they didn’t like it. Or, worse, it catered to their ideas about race in the first place, which is kind of fucking terrifying as “Crash” was basically eight stereotypes in search of a stand-up routine.

I said earlier that I’d be intensely curious to see what the nation’s African-American critics made of it, and now we know what one thinks: the ever-entertaining, ever-controversial Armond White.

I’m not going to split hairs here: White can be the biggest fucking loon in film criticism this side of Owen Gleiberman at “Entertainment Weekly”. I rarely agree with the guy. But his takedown of “Precious” starts by taking a chainsaw to Oprah and Tyler Perry and then proceeds to use every other movie best described as “handsome” black people were remotely involved in as clubs on it:

http://www.nypress.com/article-20554-pride-precious.html

So, you could say he has a mild dislike of the film. Here is, for me, a quote that sums up White’s opinion of the movie and White himself:

The hype for Precious indicates a culture-wide willingness to accept particular ethnic stereotypes as a way of maintaining status quo film values. Excellent recent films with black themes—Next Day Air, Cadillac Records, Meet Dave, Norbit, Little Man, Akeelah and the Bee, First Sunday, The Ladykillers, Marci X, Palindromes, Mr. 3000, even back to the great Beloved (also produced by Oprah)—have been ignored by the mainstream media and serious film culture while this carnival of black degradation gets celebrated. It’s a strange combination of liberal guilt and condescension.

Dude…”Next Day Air?” “Little Man?” But it’s the framing sentences that interest me.

One of the key problems in drama is and always has been suspension of disbelief. Some people can swallow incredible bullshit wholesale, while others have trouble accepting even the most carefully refined drama. It’s a common joke that truth is stranger than fiction, but I don’t think that’s entirely true; I think we’re more likely to accept truth over fiction.

“Realism” in film is fundamentally kind of a joke. When people talk about how real a movie seems, they’re complimenting the illusion it created. But they are, first and foremost, aware of the illusion. They know they’re being told a story, so there’s a limit to what they’re willing to accept, even from movies that are trying to depict reality or are based on real events. Sometimes, if you depict the truth honestly, people think you’re full of shit.

I suspect what it is, is that audiences are being asked to believe too much. On some level, they know the actor is just acting, that it’s just a performance for the camera. Then the movie crosses a point and the mind insists: “This isn’t actually happening! What the hell!”

But this is fundamentally short-circuited when dealing with films about race. Part of this is actually fairly sensible: if you’re a white person, weighing in on the black experience is tricky even leaving out the cultural baggage. But that baggage makes it worse: you’re not just kind of a jackass, you might get labelled a racist, even if you’re levelling an honest criticism based on your experience of the film.

I’ll be curious to see what other opinions are out there as the movie hits wider release.

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2 Responses to “Movies – How “Precious””

  1. Drew Says:

    Wait, this guy thinks that Meet Dave, Norbit, and Little Man have “black themes”? I didn’t realize that “desperately trying to be funny” was a “black theme”; I’ve certainly seen enough episodes of SNL that have white actors doing that.

    • seitzeeing Says:

      He does. It’s not quite as funny as Wesley Morris’ review of “Little Man”, though.

      Armond’s generally viewed by film snobs like me to be completely off the deep end, but he is occasionally quite insightful, by which I mean I agree with him.

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