Precious, out for about a month now, was a tremendously complicated movie to attend. Audience members were divided on how to respond, vocally. How should people react to difficult art? Loudly or quietly? And if loudly, how? This problem took on an ethical dimension, and the sound of the theater became one of the key ways that viewers experienced the movie as a document of race and racial difference.
I made some recordings during and after one of the last screenings of the movie at the Bridge cinema de lux in Philadelphia. And Amina Robinson, who played Jermaine (pictured above), was kind enough to answer a few questions as well.
To first offer some minimal background for those who haven’t seen or otherwise heard much about the movie, Precious is an adaptation of a 1996 novel chronicling the harrowing difficulties of a 16-year-old girl growing up in deep poverty in Harlem. We see Precious, the title character, abused in just about every way imaginable, and the story piles her troubles on thick. The ending is hopeful, if not quite happy. Stylistically, extended sequences of grim realism are broken up by vignettes of playful, ironic fantasy, as well as some fleeting moments that border on normal adolescence. (More detailed plot summaries are widely available elsewhere.)
Critics were knocked backwards and sideways by this movie, to its immense credit. I’m not sure I read a single great review, but I certainly read plenty of painful ones. Somehow, Precious brought many critics to an irresponsibly simplistic conception of how race operates. Although the movie never claimed to speak for “black experience,” and in fact alluded to the fiction of any such singular experience (black characters spanned the socioeconomic spectrum), many writers missed this point entirely, and built entire arguments around a premise that existed only in their own nervous imaginations. And this was the case equally for those who loved and hated it.
Reading the reviews in aggregate offers a breathtaking picture of how inadequate our vocabulary for discussing race can be. The archaic presumptions left unquestioned by critics include, but are not limited to: that definitions of race are rigidly fixed; that race is only about black people and white people; that all black people are poor; that all black people see the world the same way; and that all white people are plagued by guilt. And not at all unconnected to the desperate poverty of wise commentary about race among film critics has been a persistent emphasis on race as an exclusively visual concept.
Listening to audiences watch Precious speaks to race and racial anxiety in ways that vision cannot. Unfortunately, almost all ethical questions raised about the movie in print so far have been about watching the main character. Is it therapeutic? Pornographic? How does the way YOU look affect your right to see her? But in truth, audiences do a lot more than watch during films. They listen, to the characters and to each other, and respond to both. In doing so, they open gaps that suggest nothing if not race’s perplexing contours.
At Precious, a culture of audience participation met awkwardly with a story whose villains and laugh lines were often ambiguous. On one hand (0 – :29 seconds), the movie had a wry sense of humor, even at serious moments. On the other hand (:29 – :58), the mother character, played by Mo’ Nique, was obviously a villain. But viewers disagreed as to whether her villainy was dead serious, a target for verbal outrage, or even a source of comic relief. I spoke to a young couple (:58 – 1:41) who had watched in a theater with an older woman who was so enraged by Mo’ Nique’s character that she yelled at the screen. Meanwhile, the couple found some moments, including a self-deprecating line about Precious’ weight (1:43 – 1:54), funny. Finally, a woman about my age outside the theater (1:55 – 2:55) was “appalled” by laughter at moments that she felt were inappropriate. She attributed such laughter to people being nervous about confronting the seriousness of the content.
I asked Amina Robinson about these kinds of reactions:
I actually had this conversation with one of my White co-workers. He asked why the African-Americans in the theater were laughing while it seemed the White people were appalled. I certainly have noticed that as well. When I’ve seen Precious with a lot of Black folks in the audience it is actually more funny throughout, just as when there has been mostly White people there is a lot of silence.
I find both very interesting. I can’t speak for all African-Americans, but some of us know the characters in this movie. When we see them and are confronted with this particular brand of pathology we identify with it and laugh. It feels good to know that you are not alone in what you’ve experienced. There is a certain justification. While other African-Americans see it, identify with it, and feel the strong push to deal with and heal it.
In reverse, many White people watching this movie seem to be being introduced to a part of life that they were ignorant to. So they get sucked into the world and are captivated and speechless. That is not to say that White people don’t deal with the issues in the film, because they do, but Precious is simply the Black version. It takes place in a world they may be unfamiliar with.
Personally, I laughed some and cried some. And I find any reaction to the film valid and worthy of discussion.
The disparity in reactions, ostensibly along racial lines, has led some viewers to extreme conclusions. A viewer in a forum on Oprah.com, writes:
I tried to talk about the film, process the themes and examine the extraordinary performances. I tried, but I could not escape the whole of the experience. I walked in a white woman and walked out a racist. Disgust with the audience became disgust in my heart, disappointment with myself and fear that my work as a teacher in the inner city was tainted by unclaimed/unacknowledged racism. I can escape neither my disgust with the audience nor my own sense of shame and loss. Is this the power of “Precious”, I wonder?
But, to put it bluntly, not every African-American laughed, and not every white person didn’t. However, for those unaccustomed to hearing interpretations vocalized during the movie, half of the audience, or even a handful of people, could easily stand in for everyone, or at least be a pesky distraction. Robinson describes the importance of responding authentically, regardless of one’s reasons:
We are human beings. We all have different experiences of life that affect how we view the world. We are as different as we are the same, and I think it does humanity and art an injustice to try to dictate how someone should respond to an artistic work.
I say laugh if you must, cry if you must. I do draw a line at talking in the theater though, because then you are ruining the movie for others. Other than that let the movie affect you as it does.
For Robinson, all viewers may relate to dramatic material differently. In an environment where loud response is normal, such relationships are not necessarily more fractured, just more public. This has benefits as well as drawbacks:
I can only speak from my experience when I say that I feel African-Americans like to connect to art in a very visceral way. We like to live our art, feel it, and breathe it. So when we are moved by something we become a part of it and enjoy communicating with it and adding our input. We do come from a tradition of call and response and I think that it can be a beautiful thing.
Aside from possibly that, I don’t think it is a racial issue. I think it is one of experience and identification. We as people connect in different ways to different things based on what they mean to us. Precious is a universal story of triumph over the odds, but it is still about a Black girl.
Clearly, listening to audiences watch Precious does not signal the end of racial difference. What it suggests, rather, is the danger of taking race at face value. Critics have been so quick to divide white and black viewers that they’ve missed the enormous interpretive divisions that the film has created among viewers of all racial self-identifications. This fact is much more audible than it is visible. But our audition has to be thorough. Just because we hear someone in a theater – or experience their silence – doesn’t mean we understand them, or even know what their reaction means.