In Defense of White Movie Critics

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11/05/2009 3:10 PM |


Now, nobody hates white people more than I do (that I know of). But in his cover-story pan of Precious this week, the New York Press‘s Armond White makes nameless caucasian film critics and audience members into straw men in a way that’s both problematic and inaccurate. Which is a shame, because he’s also spot-on about why Precious is a much worse movie than many reviewers seem willing to let on, and about the inadvertent condescension in their liberal-guilty reviews.

Here’s some great selections from the barrage he unleashes on the movie:

[Co-excutive producers Ophrah] Winfrey, [Tyler] Perry and [director Lee] Daniels… 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 AIDSPrecious is an orgy of prurience.

Flashbacks to Precious’ rape contain a curious montage of grease, sweat, bacon and Vaseline. Later, [Daniels] intercuts a shot of pig’s feet cooking on a stove with Precious being humped while her mother watches from a corner.

Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show.

This is true, it’s blatantly bad filmmaking, and bad racial politics, but I’m sure Armond feels freer than most about saying this.

He spends much of the review lashing out at how Precious has “been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.” (Well, reviews from festival-going critics have been rather mixed, though the dailies seem to like it. But it was the “centerpiece” of this year’s NYFF, and it got the cover of the Times Magazine.) Here’s the money quote, from the last graf:

Worse than Precious itself was the ordeal of watching it with an audience full of patronizing white folk at the New York Film Festival, then enduring its media hoodwink as a credible depiction of black American life. A scene such as the hippopotamus-like teenager climbing a K-2 incline of tenement stairs to present her newborn, incest-bred baby to her unhinged virago matriarch, 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 habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority—and relief—it allows them to feel. Some people like being conned.

First off, can you imagine taking seriously a review that indicts black critics, viewers and political pundits without singling out even one example by name at any point in a 1,600-word piece? No, of course you can’t, that’d be absurd. So maybe I’m taking this whole thing too seriously.

Now then. That’s not true, about “patronizing white folk” liking Precious because it simultaneously absolves our guilt and flatters our sense of privilege. We don’t like being conned, we just don’t feel as confident as Armond does about calling it as we see it, for reasons he alludes to but doesn’t quite get.

After the NYFF press screening, I recall reading a lot of Tweets (sorry) asking, basically, “is it ok that I didn’t like this movie at all?”

The L Magazine, for the record, has decided that it’s very much ok to not like this movie at all. Our film section—which, often to my consternation, is whiter than a tuxedo shirt back from the dry cleaner’s—has run two separate unimpressed negative reviews of the film. In the earlier review, our Simon Abrams (who also writes for the Press, I have no idea if that’s relevant) actually called the movie “a new kind of blaxploitation”. (I also reviewed the film negatively for another outlet. One of my favorite movies happens to be Nagisa Oshima’s Boy, another viciously manipulative movie about an abused child, so I feel pretty confident about calling Precious hammy and sloppy.)

But I can see why some other critics are less sure.

Earlier in his piece, Armond suggests that a lot of “excellent recent films with black themes… have been ignored by the mainstream media and serious film culture while this carnival of black degradation gets celebrated.” This is not entirely true—for every film that he lists, I can find serious (not the same as positive) attention paid to it by a white critic at a fairly major media outlet—but there is a certain disconnect, sure, that I’m conscious of, between film culture as I understand it and film culture as a black audience understands it. (To the extent that black audiences can be reduced to a monolith, which seems simplistic but it’s Armond’s formulation and not mine.)

This is partly because Lionsgate won’t screen Tyler Perry movies for critics (I’ve tried to line up a review several times). And you know, before Armond White was excoriating Tyler Perry for executive-producing a black-themed movie that white liberals liked, as he does here, he was excoriating white liberals for ignoring Tyler Perry movies, as he does here. For the record.

So Precious, coming with the imprimatur of executive-producers Tyler Perry and Oprah, is inspiring a lot of overcorrecting reviews from, yes, guilty white liberals.

A typical review of Precious expresses ambivalence about the film’s Grand Guignol rendering of black-specific poverty and trauma, and Daniels’ no-hearstring-left-unyanked methods, before settling on Mo’nique’s all-out performance as the element of the film that elevates it beyond mere grotesquerie. New York Film Festival Selection Committee member Scott Foundas is clearer than most, in his review, about why reviewers are working to declare the film a success:

What Daniels lacks as a craftsman, he makes up for in his willingness to put the lives of abused and defeated black women on the screen with brute-force candor and a lack of sentimentality.

Now, no, of course “it’s about abused black people” is not sufficient reason to like a movie. But look how far over backwards Foundas bends to praise the movie—that’s the sense of obligation I was talking about. Armond argues that reviews like this condescend to black audiences, by holding up this “carnival of black degradation” as a uniquely worthy art film about the African-American experience. He is probably right about that.

But in his rush to stick it to the smug white liberals of the Times and the NYFF selection committee, he’s reading a lot of malignancy, more than I feel comfortable with, into their frankly desperate desire to prove that they’re not tone-deaf when it comes to the African-American mass culture headed by Oprah and Tyler Perry. To go along with Armond’s criticism of Precious‘ white admirers, you also have to go along with his accusation that the film’s black champions, those same cultural and media icons, are “con artists.”

So let’s go back to the last graf of Armond’s review now. “Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation.” I absolutely love that “surely.”

Is that true, about the archetypal black audience Armond brings to the rescue? Will they actually laugh out loud at Precious? I hope so. I laughed (though not as much as I wanted to, because I felt rude). Armond, if you’re reading this: I will go up to the Magic Johnson with you this Saturday night and see Precious (as much as both you and I really don’t want to watch this movie again), because I’m genuinely curious about the response of a black audience that’s not a product of my, your or Scott Foundas’s imagination. (Although, actually, could we change it to the UA Court Street? It’s easier to get to from Bed-Stuy.) The popcorn’s on me (I’ll expense it).

5 Comment

  • Addendum re: the overwhelming whiteness of the L film section in general and people who reviewed Precious for us in particular:

    The review in the current issue was written by Benjamin Mercer. Now, I’ve never actually met Ben. So he could very well be black. Motherfucker could be Punjabi for all I know, or Abenaki.

    The whole situation is very analogous to Schr

  • David Edelstein’s experience offers another indication of why some reviewers might be too deferential to the movie:…

  • Very impressive piece of writing, sir.

    May I invite myself along to the Magic Johnson theater viewing?

  • Thanks. And, huh, I did not know that. This whole episode has served to reinforce the necessity of my receiving full genealogical charts from all contributors.

  • I saw this movie this weekend.

    I grew up in a housing project in a small town on the west side of the state of Illinois. I knew and know people like Precious. Is this movie gratuitous? Yes. Is it uncomfortable to watch. Yes. But, I think that people like Armond have their own demons. My thought is that he truly has less of a problem with the movie than he does with white people seeing the movie. Shhhh… we don’t won’t white folks knowing that poor black women have been abused.

    It’s okay, Armond. Your existence isn’t lessened or invalidated by a movie that shows a fairly stark and realistic portrayal of *one* slice of the African American experience, circa 1987. Heck, I know people right now in Gary, IN, where my family is, looking for the hookup. Waiting for a check from some govt. agency and getting severely under-served by the education system. Abuse of all sorts is prevalent. Daniels does show middle class blacks in the movie.

    I think we need to stop being embarrassed by this movie. It will be categorized in the fiction section of your Blockbuster video.