PRECIOUS IN THE CLASSROOM
By Aisha S. Durham
Saturday, December 12, 2009.
Tuesday, I offered my black popular culture students a course summary. In the midst of reviewing the varied approaches employed to describe black popular culture from Hall, hooks and Darnell Hunt to Rose, Neal and Gwendolyn Pough, I stopped myself to ask the class what they thought of Precious.
Their comments echoed much of the preferred cultural criticism from institutional voices surrounding the film. They readily spotted controlling images, they critiqued ghetto-centricity and ghetto-realism in black cinema, they described the popular production of black women’s stories as told by men (making connections to Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, Steven Spielberg ), and they identified the ideological work used to construct the preferred reading of individual triumph sans structural/institutional support; and for the students who proclaimed (with added grunts, rolling eyes, and lip smacks) they would not watch a film that could make us look bad (i.e., black folks who look bad to white people), they had handy, ready-made speeches replete with age-old racial uplift rhetoric about positive/negative images.
Both groups sat resolute in their “reading” of the film—demonstrating to me that they could apply the course material to engage critically with a media product. They anticipated my you-done-good smile. But, I took a breath and leaned over the laptop to announce:
I liked Precious.
With three words, I risked unraveling my tightly woven media/cultural studies course. On the final day of class, I had run the risk of losing credibility from my black feminist media studies teachers in training. Yet, in that moment, I had to run off course from my scripted notes to address the un/predictability of Precious and the implications of my empathetic re-reading of the film for media studies.
The Un/Predicability of Precious
First, I liked Precious for reasons other than its emotive, evocative rhetoric of struggle that recalls what some have dubbed poverty porn. Precious offers racial sincerity and a class sensibility without announcing itself as real or some authentic re-presentation of black urban life. There are varied depictions of blackness in conversation with one another, which disrupts the singularly focused and celebrated come-up, overcome narrative that makes it commercially viable. Visually, Daniels undercuts minor narrative arcs by splicing “real” violence with fantasy (i.e., real-fantasy as an escape from violence and real-fantasy to re-imagine another way of being in the world), and by using the voice of Precious as the narrator and the voice-over that interrupts and disrupts institutional voices (e.g., the teacher, the case worker) speaking for her and about her.
The institutional voices are the voices of authority—the ones who are heard. What we hear from some institutional voices in the popular is that moviegoers should read the book to appreciate or denounce the film (i.e., read the book to read the film accurately). What we hear from some institutional voices in the academy is that we should know the social facts or the statistical realities to talk about the un/realness of this story. Both of these responses assume stories—as social fact or fiction—get us closer to some knowable truth when each of them (with their own codes and conventions), use numbers, words and images to tell a story. And it is because of these voices that I imagine that a “Precious” could never be heard. She can only stand-in for or represent positions that already call her body into being.
As a media studies scholar, I am interested in what story is being told and whose story is being heard. From weeklong conversations about the film, it would seem the story depends on who you ask. Some identified with the teacher, the caseworker, the daughter. Few could digest the mother as both victim and victimizer. As a baby who was nicknamed Precious because of my mother’s perceived overprotection and as a the professor with educational capital who still carries a form of ghetto girl class consciousness from my public housing community in Norfolk (VA) to the university halls of College Station (TX), I found myself shifting viewing positions and aligning myself with different characters, which speaks to the multiplicity of blackness present and the competing stories that drew me to Precious in the first place.
There can be multiple stories. There can be multiple stories. There can be multiple stories. What Precious reveals is the cultural politics surrounding class for black folks—especially those consumed with the omnipresence of whiteness. (Here, I am reminded of other discussions about hip hop and even some of my own commentary about Tyler Perry for that matter.) Here, class as a differential consciousness remains a thorny subject in media studies because there is an assumption that we agree on what constitutes the black popular proper. After hearing my own voices and those of homegirls and students, I am left to wonder when do the working class have “permission” to speak about lived realities and how do we really account for multiple representations of blackness in the black public sphere?
Second, I liked Precious because it does illuminate the impact of the patriarchal state vis-à-vis violence. Violence is structural and systemic through poverty, institutional and disciplinary through the welfare, juvenile justice and educational system, and interpersonal through emotional, physical and sexual, and verbal abuse and aggression. (And, yes those are interrelated.) The life chances of the poor black women in the film are deeply impacted by their navigation through and their cooperation with the state. Food, shelter and family cohesion are tied to (or severed by) the state.
Precious must perform a re-victimization for the caseworker to “get her check” while performing acceptable black motherhood for another caseworker to keep her kid(s). The state commands the performance while simultaneously using these “acts” as evidence of black pathology. While national discussions about the state has routinely addressed the lived realities of black men, Precious forcefully depicts the significant role of the state in the policing and surveillance of poor black females.
These are vulnerable bodies whose privates (body, home and otherwise) can be invaded, used and abandoned. As domineering as the Mary mother figure appears, she too is a victim of these varied modes of violence. I watched the film thinking about our inability to see anything redeeming in Mary speaks to our inability to see poor black women in general as vulnerable, as victim. Precious calls attention to the state of some poor black women by highlighting heteropatriarchal state/violence.
I came to Precious thinking that I knew the story, that I knew her story. I was prepared—like my students—to be a mad black woman because the stereotypes do exist in the film, and do perform the ideological work of the state. The cultural criticism highlighting the two is warranted. My reading shouldn’t contest it. Instead, my reading asked me to consider how these cinematic representations gain meaning.
`I left Precious thinking how and why is Precious so meaningful to me? The film invited me to access modes of differential consciousness in the same way that I was drawn to forms of hip hop to announce that I was a hip hop feminist years ago. Ultimately, Precious pushed me to hear another story—an unlikely and disliked one. And it is because of this push, I interrupted myself (and the student echo) in the classroom. Tuesday, I thought—for one moment—that there could be another Precious story to tell.
With thanks to New Black Man.
Aisha S. Durham is the co-editor of the books Home Girls, Make Some Noise!: A Hip-Hop Feminism Anthology and Globalizing Cultural Studies: Ethnographic Interventions in Theory, Method & Policy. Durham is Assistant Professor of Communications and Africana Studies at Texas A&M University.