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'Precious Jones' And Our 'Classist Conditioning' (Things That Make You Go Hmm)

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by Malcolm Woodard
May 23, 2013 10:50 AM
7 Comments
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Precious

Let me preface this post by saying that I despise labels and hierarchies in general; they are divisive, instead of unifying, and I'm always looking for ways to break them down. Alas, this is the society we've all helped create, whether passively, or intentionally, so, one has to deal, otherwise others will deal for you. 


All that said... please indulge me, if you don't mind. What if Lee Daniels' Precious was a comedy? What if Soul Plane, or Booty Call and similar comedies were dramas? 

Inspired by recent conversations I had with friends, and myself (yes, I converse with myself from time to time), I wondered if what I would call our conditioned classist thoughts influence how we receive films like those I mentioned. Specifically, we seem to prefer that onscreen portrayals of our working class and poor be dominated by images that generate feelings of sympathy and empathy from the audience, directed towards the characters within the story, an attitude that we could say satisfies our own need to feel somehow superior. 

We want to see our poor and working class, poor and working to raise themselves out of that neglected, marginalized class of people. We want the drama, we want the blood, the sweat and the tears, all borne out of our conditioned classist thoughts, as I said. We don't want to see them celebrating and relishing life the way we do. We don't want to see them be silly, or having fun, and entertaining themselves, like the rest of us do. We want them in a box, locked in with every oppressive, pity-inducing adjective one can think of, and we can look down on them with our sympathy - as long as they stay in that box, of course. 

However, when they refuse to stay in that box, and instead are portrayed onscreen in a manner our classist conditioning isn't accustomed to, completely opposite to what we expect, we become upset and react accordingly, still in a condescending manner, to be sure. Except, instead of a pity-infused reaction, we become aggressive and dismissive of them, using derogatory terms to "shame" them down, and back into that box, like saying that they're acting "ghetto," or "ignorant," or like "coons and buffoons," and more. Or that they're "niggas," as we seek to separate ourselves from them, us, the supposed "sophisticated black folks." 

So, I wonder just how much critical acclaim a film like Precious would get, if the tone and mood of the film were completely counter to what they are, and the story of Precious Jones - an eternally suffering, poor young woman's story - was actually a comedic one, akin to comedic films about people of a similar socioeconomic class. 

And I wonder if we would be thinking about films like Soul Plane, Booty Call and others any differently than we currently do, if they were serious dramas, not unlike other dramas about people of the same socioeconomic class. 

Going a bit further, and slightly off track, one major aspect of Tyler Perry's movies that turns most of us off is a comedic one - essentially, the Madea character. Take that specific portrayal out of the movies that the character is in, and, while we may not all instantly swoon in acceptance of the end result, I think our reactions wouldn't be as hostile, because what will be left will be just another melodrama, not unlike the two films based on novels by T.D. Jakes, which were better received critically than those by Tyler Perry. 

Can you folks see where I'm trying to go with this? So, what do you think? Am I completely off, or is there something to this worth exploring, discussing and deconstructing?

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7 Comments

  • Rel | May 23, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    I would have to agree that most of Tyler Perry's detractors biggest point of contention with his films are the Madea character as the films without the character are better received by those outside his core audience (at least anecdotally) Im not exactly sure why this is but it could because IMO the character is completely over the top and unfunny and one that may be related the reason I cannot connect with Madea is that she does not resemble anyone in my life My grandmother could not any further from Madea if she tried perhaps this has an element of classism after I enjoy many films with characters who do not resemble people in my own life but these portrayals to seem more honest and layered where as Madea comes off to me as superficial and cliched ( sorry I don't really care for punctuation)

  • Akimbo | May 23, 2013 3:11 PMReply

    Friday, Barbershop, Attack the Block, Everybody Hates Chris, Don't Be Menace, House Party, Coming to America (partially), even ATL to an extent: all generally respected comedies that take place in the hood. The problem isn't portraying "hood life" in a light-hearted manner, it's when the characters are stereotypes instead of being fleshed out.

    To transform any of the films you mentioned from comedy to drama or vice versa would require complete overhauls to their content and story. For Precious, there will never be anything funny about a high schooler getting beat, raped, having inbred/mentally impaired babies, and contracting HIV. For Booty Call, the stakes aren't serious enough for a drama: the goal is sex. For Soul Plane, there isn't even really a story, it's just a series of crazy things that happen on a plane.

    Regarding Tyler Perry films, the turn off is not that they mix in humor with "the struggle," it's that they're poorly written. Aside from overuse of the "evil dark skinned man," "trifling mama," "saintly light-skinned man," and "the tragic heroine who just needs to pick up her bible and that light-skinned fella to solve all her problems" archetypes, there's nothing problematic about infusing humor into the stories he tells. They're just often executed poorly and lazily, relying on stereotypical behavior instead of jokes and organically humorous scenarios. I did laugh when Kimberly Elise "glub glubbed" at Steve Harris after she tossed him in the hot tub, though. That was mean, but actual funny and deserved.

    So no, I don't know what you're talking about. People complain about stereotypical black characters because they're stereotypes, not because they're poor and having fun. Most of the truly horrible comedies UPN had (I'm not talking The Game, Half & Half, Good News, Girlfriends or any of the other decent shows) were not about po' folk and they were still wretched stereotypical messes. Homeboys in Outer space for starters.

  • CareyCarey | May 23, 2013 2:01 PMReply

    This post should say "re-run". Yep, we've been here before. But when I cook navy beans & rice, they taste the best after they've settled a day or two. I love left-over. Soooooo.....

    The bigger they are, the harder they fall, Mr. Woodard. I am suggesting that although I've championed all of your previous posts, I believe you've completely blown this one. The premise to you argument is faulty to say the least. Lets start with your take/words on "Precious", Tyler Perry's movies and the words "our conditioned classist thoughts".

    Your words: "One major aspect of Tyler Perry's movies that turn MOST OF US off is the comedic aspect of them." AND... "We don't want to see them [our poor and working class] be silly, or having fun, and entertaining themselves, like the REST OF US do"

    Now, first and foremost, the overwhelming major of "us" are not turned off by Tyler Perry's movies. Lets get that straight. In this large non-monolithic world of black folks (those who come from a variety of social and economic backgrounds), if ticket sells are any indication of "our" likes and dislike, Tyler Perry is not the bad guy. So I question who "WE" are, and who exactly are "THE REST OF US". Tyler Perry's films are loved by the overwhelming majority of black ticket buyers.

    To that point, and to illustrate my point, I am going to borrow a few words from Rocket (below)... "People want to act like it's just the folks in the hood watching Love and Hip Hop [Precious & Medea]. No, the so-called bourgeois are the primary beneficiaries of that kind of programming."

    Now, although I highlighted those words, I don't agree with the opinion/notion that people watch a particular style of programming in an attempt to stratify themselves above the so-called "less-than" black folks. However, I will agree with his basic sentiment that it's awfully presumptuous to believe that you, me or anyone knows what each of us receives from a movie, or why we even go to the movies.

    Consquently, it's my belief that although you, Mr Woodard, said you despise labels and hierarchies in general, your whole post had the smell of labels and generalities that you cannot support nor prove. Sooooo, again... you dropped the ball on this one.

    P.S.: I am black. And it's safe to say I am as educated as the "average" American citizen. I've been poor and n****r rich. I've lived in the hood and I've owned my own home and rented out a few (yes, I've been a landlord). Now tell me, why do I watch -- and sometimes enjoy -- the movies you've highlighted in this post? EXACTLY! Only I know the answer to that question. And I seriously doubt it has anything to do with "classist thoughts".

    But hey, I believe this post and its issues are a perfect portal to Adam Scott Thompson's post "For The Love Of Movies... Can We Talk? He's basically asking the readers to define and/or explain why they go to movies and what they receive from doing so? So Malcolm, jump on over there and talk to us in first person. I mean, personally, I'd like to know what movies/genre you most enjoy - and why?

  • Lovesfilmnmusic | May 23, 2013 1:36 PMReply

    I read Push in College. Also while there I was in a Black theater group. We had to audition w monologues in order to perform in competitions and shows. One girl's monologue came from Push. She performed it like it was comedy. It was so blasphemous and sad to witness. She shitted on what I deemed to be an important piece of literature. So I'm not sure the reverse works or serves the material in a better way.

  • BluTopaz | May 23, 2013 1:58 PM

    You bring up a good point. When I saw Tyler's For Colored Girls in the theater, the audience of mostly Black women (and this wasn't in the hood either) howled with laughter at some of the dialogue that clearly wasn't meant to be funny. Ex: the line with Whoopi Goldberg's character had a serious line about being ugly and someone shouted 'you sho is!' and apparently this was hilaaaaaarious. I felt like, wtf is wrong with these people it's not a comedy! And there was running commentary throughout the film with 'why so and so got to look like a fish', 'slap that dead n--- again', etc. It wasn't the first time I've seen a movie with this kind of response to a drama. My friend who was with me said she thinks many Black people laugh at pain because it's like a default reaction, they don't know how to process it any either way. I don't know if that's true, but maybe that's the mindset of that girl you mentioned who thought it appropriate to present a young, illiterate incest victim's monologue as comedy.

  • Sweeta | May 23, 2013 1:28 PMReply

    I feel like I'm having deja vu...Have I seen this post before?
    Not that I mind, I look forward to the discussion that will ensue--just asking.

    And I agree with Blah, Blah on the "disobedient woman" trope and how problematic it is. They abound in both TD and TP's films and they make me sick. It goes along with the story of Eve, I guess, smh

  • Blah, Blah | May 23, 2013 11:19 AMReply

    I love this piece and I already know that I'm going to love the discussion, which should (hopefully) comes from it. I think that there is a certain defined narrative that we black folks wish to convey in the media. And a lot of it has to do with the whole politics of respectability bit. Tyler Perry and the TD Jakes comparison is a good one however personally, I find some of the themes in both of their films (particularly the "disobedient woman" theme), extremely problematic.

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