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When Push Comes to Shove — and Shove Back, Hard

  • 11/3/09 at 1:50 PM

Some readers (and a posse led by Latoya Peterson at Jezebel) are angered by my review of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. They believe my language reflects deep and both conscious and unconscious prejudices toward African-Americans, obesity, and the so-called “underclass.” Defending myself against those charges (as well as outright abuse) is bound to be a losing battle, but I respect the feelings of Peterson and many of her commenters (the least abusive, anyway) and am sick at the thought that my attempts to evoke this movie have been viewed so harshly — and, I believe, unfairly.

When a filmmaker in or out of Hollywood makes a movie about a victimized African-American girl, you can expect him or her to cast an actress who is thin and light-skinned with big round eyes to make everyone — black and white — want to identify with her. Lee Daniels, in filming Precious, has gone to the opposite extreme. He presents a heroine, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), who is, in the context of mainstream American culture, on the bottom rung status-wise. That is not my prejudice; it is reflected in every aspect of our society, from job opportunities to magazine covers. (Outside of Oprah, who has spent millions to lose and keep her weight off, it’s hard to think of another overweight African-American cover girl — until now, anyway.) It is unjust, it is mean, it is destructive, it is inhuman, but it is true. It’s also the whole point of the movie (even more so than the novel). Here is an obese, black-skinned (as opposed to latte-colored), pregnant, illiterate, poor girl: She has everything against her. And Daniels, like Sapphire, continues to pile on the abuses. She is sexually assaulted by both parents. She is beaten into unconsciousness with a cast-iron pan. She is kicked in the face giving birth. She is expelled from school for being pregnant — not even her fault but the result of her father’s rape. She has AIDS.

Contrary to commenters' assertions (“What does it transgress, exactly? Because she is, you know, human, and she looks like a human … The usage is just racist. And sizeist”), “transgressive” isn’t a misuse of my thesaurus and it doesn’t reflect my racism or prejudice against fat people. In the context of movies, her image is a shock; it throws you violently outside your normal frame of reference, forcing you to rethink your assumptions. My assumptions are not, as many have inferred, judgmental. I’ve had weight issues all my life. My mother, an M.D., once treated obesity (or tried like hell) and in filling in for her receptionist in my late teens I saw what women in the African-American community with a certain body type and metabolism were up against — especially since they were surrounded by crap food (which, as the great documentary Food, Inc. makes clear, is both addictive and cheaper — thanks to corn subsidies — than, say, a head of broccoli). As for her affect, Sidibe is reportedly a bubbly, outgoing girl in life, but she is directed to be inexpressive. Again, that’s the point. Horribly abused and slighted or ignored by those around her, Precious has learned to reveal nothing. The first time you can see into her eyes is in her glamorous fantasy sequences, when Precious can let go.

I could have used euphemisms in describing the way she is presented to us, but I don’t think that would have evoked the movie. Daniels is very calculating in how he uses Sidibie’s image. He also has a scene in which she stares into a mirror and sees a beautiful thin white woman staring back, as if to say, “This is how she sees herself on the inside.” If he can so starkly portray how she wants to be versus how she is, if he can say, “Look how many strikes are against this girl,” then at the end when she emerges with real self-esteem, he can claim to have made a truly affirmative film — and I don't mean Hollywood-style affirmation.

So I was taken aback by comments like this:

Can I nominate Edelstein for worstie? That's how a real human being actually looks like in real life. I realize that her appearance may be shocking to you but you seriously need to filter your mouth. I agree with your sentiment and I hope this does spur some type of discussion, but his "reaction" was incredibly rude and shouldn't have been published (at least that bluntly). It didn't even take into consideration that some people do look like that and probably have very fragile self-esteem. As for her "shortcomings," obviously Ms. Sidibe is overweight but, from what I gather, that doesn't really have much to do with the true message of this movie.

It doesn’t have to do with the “true message” of the movie, but her weight is front-and-center.

OK, Edelstein, granted, maybe if Hollywood had allowed for a broader (ahem!) portrayal of black womanhood through the decades, showed the points between and beyond Dorothy Dandridge/Thandie Newton/Halle Berry and Mammy/maids/Medea/Eddie Murphy in a dress instead of spending a century studying how to properly light toothpicks onscreen, you'd find Sidibe less "jarring."

Actually, many of my colleagues and I have complained about fewer opportunities for beautiful women who are darker and more, ahem, broad (read: rounder, less model-skinny), like Angela Bassett. It is in the context of the Halle Berrys that Sidibe is, like it or not, jarring.

Also, her eyes are naturally narrow, not "squashed." I have a longstanding hatred of Edelstein, but this takes the cake.

As Jason Alexander said in Shallow Hal (the ultimate absurdist riff on prejudice against weight), “It takes the whole bakery.” My use of the word “squashed” was meant to suggest that Precious’s most expressive features are, thanks to how she's directed and photographed and lighted, hidden by her flesh; it was not a comment on Sidibe’s eyes, which are lovely in out-of-character photos.

The New York Magazine article confirmed my opinion of magazine and well, uh, all print media. Namely, the shockingly broad de-humanization of black people that exist outside of what it is to be a "good black," namely light skin, "good hair," thin, well off, and devoid of any linguistic trace of "black accents." (See: uh, the vast majority of black female actresses and singers). It's fucked up. It's sad. But seriously. It's about time he just played it as it lays and said "these are monsters." Which is to say, he missed the entire point of the book, the movie, and fucking life, that is, humanity exists in us all. In fact, this review is fucking evidence of some of the fucked up pathology that drives the self-hatred of the main character in Precious.

No one at New York would describe the characters (or people they're based on) in Precious as monsters. That's an unfair prejudice against this magazine. But I think the film does cater to a Reaganite preconception about “welfare mothers” by making Mary — in between the beatings of Precious — obsessed with her “check” and baldly lying about looking for work.

One line of mine I admit was insensitive: “She’s also sexually molested by her jealous, welfare-cheating, gross, and sedentary mother, although the genital fingering might seem preferable to the verbal and physical abuse.” The last thing I would ever do is make light of sexual abuse. In a clumsy way I was trying to suggest that I have read accounts of incest in which victims have said that at least when being touched they weren’t being beaten bloody, that it was perceived by the victim at the time as the lesser of two evils. But that is too complicated and too debatable a point to pack into a single offhand phrase. I apologize.

I think he means it offends his delicate sensibilities to be shown a fat woman on the screen. There should have been a black rectangle over her body so people wouldn't be offended.

No, my “delicate sensibilities” weren’t offended. I was offended based on other criteria. I still believe — and we can debate this I hope without throwing around charges of racism — that the piling-on of abuse and the relentless demonization of the family is a kind of demagoguery. I’m not na├»ve enough to think that monsters like Precious’s mother don’t exist. But I think the job of an artist is to get inside and understand people like that and not exploit their inhumanity in melodramatic ways to make us furious. It’s the crudeness of Precious I resent, not its message of hope.

UPDATE: Latoya Peterson also points to my description of Precious's mother, Mary, as "too singular to be universal," asserting that I refuse to accept (perhaps because of my different background) "ferocious violence" in this community. I accept its existence, but reject the portrayal onscreen — not out of squeamishness but in the belief that an artist owes us something more than a relentless display of cruelty edited for shock value.

UPDATE 2: I hope this is my last word on the subject, but as we get closer to the opening of Precious, it's important to note how casually the movie's adherents (many of whom haven't seen it) throw around the charge of racism. I've read that by pointing out that Precious is dark-skinned in a world that prizes lighter skin, I've revealed my own bigoted preferences. What garbage. In Sapphire's Push, Precious says she wishes she were light skinned and looks with envy on women who are. Early in the movie, the woman she sees in the mirror who represents — she thinks — who she is on the inside is thin and white. Those weren't my racist projections!

Meanwhile, a woman who calls herself piranha in an entry called "how not to defend yourself," quotes me selectively:

so now he defends himself, because he, david edelstein, isn't racist or sizeist, noooo:

"I’ve had weight issues all my life. My mother, an M.D., once treated obesity (or tried like hell) and in filling in for her receptionist in my late teens I saw what women in the African-American community with a certain body type and metabolism were up against — especially since they were surrounded by crap food"

*sigh*. that really needs no further commentary, does it.

*Sigh*. Maybe it does. Notice how she omits the final, parenthetical clause: "... which, as the great documentary Food, Inc. makes clear, is both addictive and cheaper — thanks to corn subsidies — than, say, a head of broccoli." I guess she doesn't feel that some people are genetically predisposed to obesity — and therefore have a much tougher time losing weight. And if she'd seen Food, Inc., she'd know that among the consequences of America's corn subsidies is a hugely disproportionate rise of obesity in poor communities. The filmmaker shows why a family goes to a fast-food drive-in window instead of eating at home: a) the parents both work several jobs and don't have time to cook; and b) double cheeseburgers are cheaper than a head of broccoli. The book and movie Precious drive this home by showing Precious's breakfast: a tub of fried chicken.

The dishonesty is breathtaking.

Related: When Push Comes to Shove [NYM]
Precious Reactions Interesting, Infuriating [Jezebel]