erik lundegaard


Sunday February 07, 2010

Writin' is Whitenin': Ishmael Reed's Racial Assumptions about "Precious"

Apparently media outlets are still giving Ishmael Reed, racial curmudgeon, a forum. Last Friday it was The New York Times.

Reed's op-ed is about the film "Precious," and, big surprise, he's not a fan. Neither was I but the two of us are not-fans for different reasons. Actually we may be not-fans for the same reasons but it's hard to tell from Reed's writing. As I mentioned in The Seattle Times in 2003 when I reviewed Reed's book, "Another Day at the Front," if writin' is fightin' (the title of another Reed book) then Reed is one of our great literary flailers. He comes at everyone without landing a solid punch.

He begins with this premise about "Precious": white people love it, black people hate it. Maybe, but his evidence is anecdotal. He also misinterprets the film's director, Lee Daniels, post-Oscar nomination. On Feb. 2, the Times, reported:

Speaking by telephone, Mr. Daniels said he hoped the nomination would bring more viewers to a movie — about the abuse and triumph of an overweight ghetto girl — that has been only a modest draw at the box office. “That’s what these awards do,” he said. “A lot of middle-class white Americans haven’t seen the film yet.”

Reed's take?

In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more 'middle-class white Americans' to his film."

Reed's biggest problem, as ever, is one of racial assumption. He quotes Barbara Bush: "There are kids like Precious everywhere. Each day we walk by them: young boys and girls whose home lives are dark secrets." He quotes Oprah Winfrey: "None of us who sees the movie can now walk through the world and allow the Preciouses of the world to be invisible." Then Reed asks this question: "Are Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey suggesting, on the basis of a fictional film, that incest is widespread among black families?"

Jesus, I get tired of this. Look, I'm hardly color-blind, but it's seems the group Precious represents for both Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey is: "victims of physical and sexual abuse." To Mr. Reed, it's: "black girls." Who can't see past race here?

Reed adds that shame doesn't fall upon the white community for such films as "Requiem for a Dream," yet "Precious," he writes, casts "collective shame upon an entire community." But that's only true if we see the characters as representatives of the black community. Do we? Does he? Either he can't see past black and assumes no one else can, or he assumes the white community can't see past black so he can't, either.

How unclearly does he see race? He writes:

Black films looking to attract white audiences flatter them with another kind of stereotype: the merciful slave master. In guilt-free bits of merchandise like “Precious,” white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help.

There's a general truth to this but not as applied to "Precious." After all, what do the white people in the film, as mild as they are, do? They pass the buck. And that's all they do. It's black people—albiet light-skinned black people—who save Precious.

Reed saves his worst comment for the end:

It’s no surprise either that white critics — eight out of the nine comments used on the publicity Web site for “Precious” were from white men and women — maintain that the movie is worthwhile because, through the efforts of a teacher, this girl begins her first awkward efforts at writing.

Redemption through learning the ways of white culture is an old Hollywood theme.

Once upon a time Ishmael Reed said that writin' is fightin'." Now he says it's whitenin'. I can't imagine a more harmful lesson.

Next time the Times op-ed has extra space they should give a forum to Jill Nelson. She didn't like the movie, either, but at least she was smart about it.

Posted at 09:28 AM on Sunday February 07, 2010 in category Culture