The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Precious' gets the bum's rush from Armond White

November 5, 2009 | 12:44 pm

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," Lee Daniels' searing film about a sexually abused teenage girl that opens Friday, has been racking up film festival awards, Oscar buzz and critical plaudits for months -- it already has a sky-high 87 Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. But the movie, which has the heavyweight endorsement of both Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, two icons of the African American creative community, just received a nasty thrashing from another black icon, the New York Press' wildly politically incorrect Armond White, one of the few remaining high-profile African American film critics (he's currently head of the prestigious New York Critics Circle).

Precious_poster White is famously contrarian in his tastes, so I'm not saying that he's going to be leading a momentous critical backlash against the film. But it is rare to see an African American commentator not only take apart a gifted black filmmaker like Daniels, but trash Oprah and Perry in the process. White doesn't mince words, calling the film "a con job" that "naively treats Precious' exhibition of ghetto tragedy and female disempowerment as if it were raw truth." Then he really unloads on everyone:

"Winfrey, Perry and Daniels make an unholy triumvirate. They come together at some intersection of race exploitation and opportunism. These two media titans -- plus one shrewd pathology pimp -- use 'Precious' to rework Booker T. Washington's early 20th century manifesto 'Up From Slavery' into extreme drama for the new millennium: Up From Incest, Child Abuse, Teenage Pregnancy, Poverty and AIDS. Regardless of its narrative details about class and gender, 'Precious is an orgy of prurience.... Not since 'Birth of a Nation' has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as 'Precious.' Fully of brazenly racist cliches (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken) it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it's been acclaimed on the international film festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy."  

White is especially disturbed by the involvement of Winfrey and Perry, who have been very open about their own experiences with childhood abuse. He views their much-discussed triumph over their own personal travails as exploitation, arguing that the movie's "self-pity and recrimination" is seen as an endorsement of Winfrey and Perry's own backstories, saying: "Promoting this movie isn't just a way for Perry and Winfrey to aggrandize themselves, it helps convert their private agendas into heavily hyped social preoccupation."

I think White goes a little overboard, since it's hardly the first time Oprah in particular has promoted a film or a book about family abuse and dysfunction -- she's made a career out of it. But it will fascinating to see how black audiences react to Daniels' stark drama. As my colleague John Horn pointed out today, Lionsgate, which is releasing the film, is going after both middle-class black audiences and art-house cineastes, opening the film here at both the Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15-theater complex as well as the highbrow Landmark and ArcLight theaters, hoping to score with two very disparate audiences.

It's a tough needle to thread. In fact, Lionsgate tried a similar strategy with its recent LeBron James basketball film, "More Than a Game," and came up short, never connecting with either young urban sport fans or art-house documentary lovers. After a month in theaters, the film has only made $829,000, a poor showing for a movie that James promoted with wall-to-wall appearances on every major TV talk show imaginable. The themes in "Precious" certainly have the potential to speak a huge disparate audience, but I suspect that, even with its A-list endorsers, it may do better with Oscar voters than rank and file African American moviegoers.

Armond White is clearly a non-believer. He ends his review by saying that some of the film's most emotional scenes "might have been met howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem's Magic Johnson theater. Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation, whereas too many white film habitues casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority -- and relief -- it allows them to feel. Some people like being conned."