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.
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