Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

How far have we come from 'Precious'?

Words failed me. I was supposed to be leading a panel discussion of the gripping movie "Precious" with director Lee Daniels, actress Paula Patton and Becky Pringle of the National Education Association. But after watching the movie, I had trouble getting the program started -- I was literally speechless.

The story, for those who may not be familiar with it, is about Claireece "Precious" Jones, a 16-year-old, 350-pound, illiterate black girl in 1987 Harlem. And there's nothing precious about her life. The emotional, physical and sexual abuse she endures is gasp-out-loud shocking. The father of her two children (one of whom has Down Syndrome) is also their grandfather. Her monster of a mother, powerfully portrayed by actress and comedienne Mo'Nique, makes Joan Crawford look like a rank amateur. And although Precious begins to see green shoots of a better life through a class at an alternative school, "better" is relative and precarious here. Despite the smile on her face as the film ends, you know her fate is grim.

There are critics who say the film points primarily to how “little has changed in the inner city in the more than 20 years since,” as Raina Kelley wrote in Newsweek. Kelley argued that “Precious is a period piece that feels like a documentary.” She and others have a point -- up to a point. There are some key differences between 1987 and 2009. Just ask yourself what would happen today if:

...a mother refused to work and used her child and grandchild as a means to extra welfare income? No doubt some folks are still trying to game the system, but the system has gotten a lot tougher on those entangled in it since New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani started shaking it up in 1994 and President Clinton ended "welfare as we know it" in 1996. Now, most recipients have to work within two years of getting on welfare and face a five-year limit on benefits. Some states even have "family caps," which allow them to deny additional checks for children born to mothers already on welfare. Precious’s mother would be forced out of her worn La-Z-Boy and onto the front lines of the welfare-to-work effort.

...a teenager told a welfare caseworker that her father "gave her a baby," or a mother was found to be complicit in her child's abuse? In the film, I was struck by the nonchalance of the caseworker (played by a decidedly unglamorous and husky-voiced Mariah Carey). She immediately asks Precious to repeat the assertion about her father. But when the girl refuses and moves on to other topics, Carey’s character doesn’t follow up. Similarly, when an intended reunification of Precious and her mother turns into a harrowing scene where years of abuse are unspooled, the caseworker walks away in disgust. No doubt some of this was for dramatic effect. Sharman Stein, spokesman for the New York City Administration for Children's Services, told me that even in 1987, there was a state child-abuse hotline and allegations would have been referred to the district attorney’s office. Today, though occasional cases fall through the cracks, this system is designed for more rapid response. Welfare officials call the police directly; and children’s services, police and the AG’s office coordinate on the investigation.

...someone was told he or she is HIV-positive? Precious learns she's HIV-positive after her mother clinically informs her that her father died "of the AIDS," and her young life is suddenly limited by a red-ribboned ceiling. Remember, 1987 was just six years after the Centers for Disease Control recognized the disease. And it was nine years before a cocktail of drugs would turn AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable and chronic disease. To be sure, HIV/AIDS continues to stalk the land. Here in the District, at least 3 percent of the population is living with HIV/AIDS. And African Americans, particularly women, are now the face of the epidemic. But, in stark contrast to 1987, living with HIV/AIDS can now mean living a full life.

After you've seen "Precious," perhaps you'll agree 100 percent with Kelley's assertion that not much has changed in America's inner cities. Perhaps that's the power of "Precious." Despite the passage of 20 years, her story brims with present-day heartache and hardship. During the panel discussion, Daniels exhorted the audience to no longer look away or ignore Precious. She's in every state and every city. We must see her. That I can see aspects of her in 2009 is what's so troubling.

By Jonathan Capehart  | November 10, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Freedom of choice, except for women
Next: Polarizing around Fort Hood

Comments

NYT Sunday magazine had a good article about this film, I believe it was Oct. 25. issue.
There was some interesting casting stuff(Mariah Carey as a teacher,e.g., if memory serves), and biographical notes on director Lee Daniels.

After reading the NYT article, I was pretty sure
I didn't want to see the film. The image of a young girl performing oral sex on her mother is just too disgusting to contemplate, let alone allow into my memory bank for possible storage. That's not a comment on the quality or worthiness of the film or the novel on which it's based. I just don't want to see this. I don't know how graphic the portrayal is, (maybe Capehart could tell us)and I don't plan to find out. Otherwise, I probably would have made an effort to see the film. But that did it for me.

Posted by: martymar123 | November 10, 2009 7:11 AM | Report abuse

As Lee said, "Seeing Precious"...it is the thing I found most important about this project. Her suffering is unimaginable to many of us, but all too real for many others who suffer all the more for being ignored and unacknowledged. I believe this film will give so much strength and courage to young women who are experiencing such abuse, today as much as ever. I see the faces on the subway in NY and still walking the streets in Harlem and wonder, my Lord, what are these people going through? Now we know. It's wrenching. In the course of our busy days, how much would even just eye contact and a warm smile mean to those we pass by with heads hung low? This is something we can all do.

Posted by: kianga1 | November 10, 2009 7:18 AM | Report abuse

@martymar123 There is no depiction of the sexual abuse Precious suffered by her mother. It is implied, but most who don't know the book will miss it. GO SEE IT! Geoffrey Fletcher does a perfect screenplay.

Posted by: kianga1 | November 10, 2009 7:27 AM | Report abuse

kianga1: Thank you! for your comment. And yes, I think I will see it now.

Posted by: martymar123 | November 10, 2009 7:37 AM | Report abuse

kianga1: I just read your other comment.
Well said! I'm reposting most of it. If only people would really THINK the way you obviously do---and beautifully expressed here.

"Her suffering is unimaginable to many of us, but all too real for many others who suffer all the more for being ignored and unacknowledged. I believe this film will give so much strength and courage to young women who are experiencing such abuse, today as much as ever. I see the faces on the subway in NY and still walking the streets in Harlem and wonder, my Lord, what are these people going through? Now we know. It's wrenching. In the course of our busy days, how much would even just eye contact and a warm smile mean to those we pass by with heads hung low? This is something we can all do."

Posted by: martymar123 | November 10, 2009 7:42 AM | Report abuse

Have been looking forward to the movie after reading all the amazing raves, especially Gabby Sidibe. Just finished the book and each night have nightmares about what was done to Precious by her father begining at the age of 3. I shudder just writing that.

But I must take offense to your offhand remark about Joan Crawford. Her noteriety came about because her daughter wrote a sensational book meant only to grab headlines and make money. Please use another example next time and leave the dead Ms. Crawford to rest in peace. Thank you.

Posted by: myersdonihoo | November 10, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

This is an observation, it is not an assignment of "blame". The failure to grasp the moral enormity of the sexual and physical abuses that often occur in inner city families is mostly a feature of the inner city communities themselves. I haven't seen the movie, but I think it would be a good idea to distribute free videos as widely as possible in those populations to set them thinking very seriously about the children like Precious who may still live among them.

Posted by: Roytex | November 10, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Don't kid yourself, Jonathan. There are communities of Precious everywhere. And known instances of abuse do get ignored -there aren't enough places to put all the abused and neglected children. The laws may have changed, but the lives of too many have not. I read the book, "Push" shortly after it was published. I was disturbed then, but I continue to see more and more desperate families that just continue through generations. It's not better.

Posted by: crcpbl | November 10, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Oh Roytex

It’s always sad to read comments that start like this: "This is an observation, it is not an assignment of "blame"."

Kids are molested and abused all over the country, in fact I knew some while growing up. And we didn’t live any where near a city or the backwoods. While the “Precious” story may be hers alone, I hope it helps other children confronting these types of “adults” to come forward. And I certainly mean children who live in inner city communities as well as the suburbs, small towns and abroad.

Hopefully, the movie is distributed to the smaller communities as well.

Posted by: ummhuh1 | November 10, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Somebody please, please explain to me why is that the only time black movies, black actors and directors get Oscar buzz is when the movie portrays black people behaving badly. Just last year there was Miracle at St Ana and Cadillac Records. No nomination. But when we play pimps or abusive parents the media says "This movie is a must see!" Sad. Only when we conform to stereotypes do we get recognition.

Posted by: ChairmanX | November 10, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I think you are being over-optimistic, even naive, about the state of things right now. How many cases have we heard about in the DC Metro area in the past year where someone "slipped through the cracks" because overworked and underpaid CPS or social workers just couldn't get to the case, or didn't follow up, or just were too burned out to care? (including dead children in a freezer)

It is not just DC: the girl/woman who was kept in the back yard and impregnated two or three times in California? The guy was a registered sex offender (proving how well that ridiculous system works) and social workers had come by to check things out, but everything seemed fine during their 5 minute visit.

Bottom line: until we pour a lot more money into front-end solutions (better education, child care, prenatal care, hiring more caseworkers and paying them better, giving children something to do after school, meaningful sex education, etc etc), we are going to end up spending it on the back end (jail, probation, picking up the pieces of broken lives).

Posted by: egengle | November 10, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Two words: Banita Jacks

Posted by: talleyl | November 10, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

talleyl, yes, thanks, I had forgotten her name when I wrote my post.

Posted by: egengle | November 10, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

I haven't seen the movie but I've seen enough of this in real life to know that it's not an exaggeration. The problem is who to blame and what to do about it. The family is the building block of society and the protector of children. What do you do when the family is in fact a destructive force in the life of children?

Posted by: InTheMiddle | November 10, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Your commentary falls short of being analytical. It barely scratches the service.

Notice, also, how the "light-skinned" people are the heroe to Precious. Is the promotion of this self-hate healthy? If it was at the hands of someone other than Winfrey, Daniels, and T. Perry it would be. They have gotten paid off their self-hate and the complacency of not only white liberals but folks such as yourself who have no idea what goes on everyday out here.

Spend a day at MLK Library sir where people search high and low for knowledge not victim status.

The shock value of the film is lost on anyone with direct real life exposure and contact with the “other half” and can view their own experiences with objectivity. Powerful in its exploitative stereotypical tendencies, the film makes you squirm and look away rather than emote genuine feelings of altruism, which can move the collective consciousness of our society, school system, and policy makers to help contemporary Preciouses.

Posted by: DreamCity4LIFE | November 10, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

@ChairmanX -- exactly and T. Perry, Oprah, and Daniels play right into.

@Kianga1 -- You must live a very sheltered life along with the rest of your bleeding heart liberals.

This movie exploits black youth plain and simple.

Now all the "pink people" from Bethesda will think every black girl they see is Precious.

Be careful out here.

Real life inspiration is in the streets and community not on the movie screen financed and promoted by Hollywood.

Posted by: DreamCity4LIFE | November 10, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Somebody please, please explain to me why is that the only time black movies, black actors and directors get Oscar buzz is when the movie portrays black people behaving badly. Just last year there was Miracle at St Ana and Cadillac Records. No nomination. But when we play pimps or abusive parents the media says "This movie is a must see!" Sad. Only when we conform to stereotypes do we get recognition.
----

What?! I didn't think black people were abusers and incestous. This movie sounds like a HUMAN story. Come on. As for movies gaining Oscar buzz/ awards, how about "The Color Purple"? Or "Ghost"? "Dreamgirls". "In the Heat of the Night". "Lady Sings the Blues". "Malcom X". "Ali". "Monster's Ball". And the list goes on.

Posted by: Skkye | November 10, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I normally prefer to read the book prior to seeing the movie, but did not want to wait until the book was delivered to my branch library. The movie has good acting, but is very disturbing. I too felt violated and could not watch some scenes even though implied. I now will leave the book at the library once it arrives.

Having worked for an organization which provided counseling to victims of rape, violence and abuse to women, children and yes, men, I thought I would be able to emotionally handle such dipictions. Alas, I do not believe anyone would not be disturbed by this movie.

It seems some posts are relating the problem of sexual and physical abuse to inner city or poor communities, however this problem permeates all communities regardless of class, race, ethnicity or wealth. The problem is that this subject is so taboo we really can't gauge how widespread the problem.

Posted by: zetalady | November 10, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I will probably not see the movie, even if it's brilliantly filmed. I know the problems: I'm a public school teacher married to a police officer, so I see/hear about them every day. (And it's NOT just a "black problem" or an "inner-city problem", believe me.)

What I want are solutions. And unfortunately, no one seems to have any. Teachers, social workers, etc. wear themselves out trying to help one child at a time, but we can't keep up, and larger-scale change eludes us all. The heading on this page is "How far have we come from 'Precious'?" The answer: not far enough.

Posted by: highschoolteacher | November 10, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

"But I must take offense to your offhand remark about Joan Crawford. Her noteriety came about because her daughter wrote a sensational book meant only to grab headlines and make money."

There is a great deal of independent verification of Christina's assertions, including 1) her brother, 2) the biography of Crawford that came out in the '70s, where I first read about the abuse (various friends of Joan's called her on it), 3) Helen Hayes's son who attested to witnessing incidents of abuse, 4) the various school officials who were forced to deal with Joan's antics (the TWO dresses all term, verbally abusing Christina in front of them, the nuns at Sacred Heart Academy, etc.), 5) the police officer who filed the report on Joan's attack of Christina. In fact there was an article that came out even in the '60s about her treatment of Christina (I think it was in Redbook?). Joan was a very talented, very troubled woman who loved her children but had a lot of emotional problems. It drives me crazy when people get all maudlin about child abuse--until it's one of their heroes. Christina suffered just as Precious does--in different ways, obviously, but child abuse is child abuse.

This actually leads into the discussion--some of the posts above talk about how we really *haven't* come all that far, and cite the girl in California, Jaycee Duggard, plus there was also that awful case in California a few years ago with that father who impregnated several of his daughters and then killed a bunch of them. It seems with such systemic, long-term abuse that these perpetrators SHOULD have been caught--why weren't they? I do think the social workers give their all but their resources are stretched to the breaking point. I feel that we as a society pay lip service to preventing these horrible cases but we don't do enough to stop them. These agencies have so little funding--these people are paid slave wages. Why can't we allocate more funding to these causes?

I'm looking forward to this movie. I haven't read the novel but I've read other stuff of Sapphire's--she's a fantastic writer.

Posted by: NYC123 | November 10, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who lives in NY, Chicago, Clevland, Detroit, Newark etc knows that many young women named Precious are out there, and their Brothers named ????? "less Precious?"

The problem is what to do? Teachers cannot live with these unfortunate children. We cannot put them in foster care, that in many case is not much better than their homes?

Even now we learn that $1 billion in state aid has gone to Trenton, NJ to help the education of their children, and everyone knows how terrible the Trenton schools are after all that money.

Hopeless? I believe so, unfortunately.

Posted by: Robe2 | November 10, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

The fault of George Bush .

Posted by: borntoraisehogs | November 10, 2009 8:20 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for your article on this child abuse crime. Hopefully someday we will be able to stop all child abuse. We have information on child abuse and ritual abuse crimes at http://ritualabuse.us

Posted by: smartnews | November 10, 2009 10:32 PM | Report abuse

"What?! I didn't think black people were abusers and incestous. This movie sounds like a HUMAN story. Come on. As for movies gaining Oscar buzz/ awards, how about "The Color Purple"? Or "Ghost"? "Dreamgirls". "In the Heat of the Night". "Lady Sings the Blues". "Malcom X". "Ali". "Monster's Ball". And the list goes on. "

Color Purple - young woman abused by all

Monster's Ball - abusive mother

Ghost - psychic was a con-artist who happened to be able to hear one dead person

Malcolm X, Ali, Lady Sings, Dreamgirls - biopics (and thus, Oscar-bait anyway)

Whenever there is a movie with a majority black cast, or black leading roles, they almost HAVE to be either criminal, or abusive/ed, or based on a true story in order to receive an Oscar nod.

Will we ever see a black "Lost In Translation", or "Sideways", or "Little Miss Sunshine"? Where everyday dysfunction in life is the focal point? I doubt it.

Posted by: SManuel615 | November 12, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I am a middle-class white person who was incested. There was no help for me than and there would be no help for me now -- unless I wanted to go into a youth detention home, aka reform school. To say that the abuse would be reported is just an explanation of why it is kept a secret. Unless you think every abuser is a pure monster (are there that many men we would jail who rape 1 out of every 3 girls in America?), reporting means the girl goes to jail, the dad may or may not go to jail, the family is deprived of support, and society looks at all the victims as freaks. Get real -- incested girls have nowhere to go but jail or the streets!

Posted by: susanh2 | November 14, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Jonathan, the poverty is worse since welfare reform.
These girls saw their mothers have 5+ children, getting welfare for each one and making it, barely. They think THEY can keeping having babies "for" this or the other guy, despite not getting a cash welfare payment for more than the first child.
One of the things they do is "sell" the children as tax dependents to friends or the daddys who are working. When that person gets the Earned Income Tax Credit, they give it (some, at least) to the mom.
The excessive corporal punishment, with no understanding of age appropriate behavior or discipline, is what has and is causing the drive by shootings by teenagers. Violence is a way of life for children from when they toddle.
I trust the Obamas know what they are doing when they say they do not spank. It is the example these mothers need. If only the parenting instruction on how do discipline children without it were out there.

Posted by: edismae | November 14, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I rather liked Akeelah and the Bee! It might not have been up for an Oscar, but it was an excellent movie with a black cast in a story with universal appeal. I believe--though I am not certain--that Lawrence Fishburn (sp?) produced it.

Positive images of African Americans in Hollywood certainly are not as commonplace as they should be, but things have progressed over the last 20 or so years, don't you think?

Posted by: vscribe | November 14, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company