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'Precious Jones' And Our Conditioned Classist Thoughts - Something Worth Exploring?

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by Malcolm Woodard
February 5, 2013 3:19 PM
29 Comments
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Eric Deggans

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. Unfortunately, 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 with something I'm currently working through below. It's all part of my research for a much larger grad school project I'm working on.

What if Lee Daniels' Precious, was a comedy?

What if Soul Plane, or Booty Call and similar comedies were serious dramas?

I'm wondering if what I'm calling our conditioned classist thoughts influence how we receive films like those I mentioned above.

What I'm getting at is that we seem to prefer that onscreen portrayals of our (black) 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, which is 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 group that they belong to. We want the drama; we want the blood, the sweat and the tears, all borne out of our conditioned classist thoughts. 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.

When they refuse to stay in that box, and instead are portrayed onscreen in a manner our classist conditioning isn't accustomed to, we become upset and react accordingly, still in a condescending manner, 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 "niggers" as we try to separate ourselves from them - us, the supposed "sophisticated black folks."

So, with regards to a film like Precious, I wonder just how different our reactions would be, if the tone and mood of the film were completely opposite to what they are now, 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 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 the comedic aspect of them. By that I mean the Madea character. Take her out of the movies she's in, and, while we may not all instantly swoon in acceptance of the end result, I think our reactions won't be as hostile, because what will be left will be just another melodrama, not unlike similar films from T.D. Jakes, which were better received critically than those by Tyler Perry.

Can you all see where I'm trying to go with this, even though I may not be doing the best job of expressing my thoughts here? But I think a foundation has been laid. So, what do you think? Am I completely off, or is there something to this for me that is worth further exploring, discussing and deconstructing?

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29 Comments

  • Tim | February 10, 2013 11:06 AMReply

    I hate this article. I read the first couple of paragraphs and skimmed through the rest to see an inane comment about Tyler Perry. I can't stand the guy's movies I've only seen two or three and they were thoroughly depressing though they had supposedly "happy endings". Of the people that dislike his films, Madea is the only saving grace. Jakes' film might be better reveiwed because they are better written and directed. But Perry's makes more money because of Madea.

    "Can you all see where I'm trying to go with this"

    No.

  • Miles Ellison | February 6, 2013 8:37 PMReply

    To me, Tyler Perry's films are a turnoff because they're comedies that aren't funny. The only film that Tyler Perry was actually funny in was Alex Cross, and I'm sure that's not what he was going for. Leaving aside the inevitable arguments about modern minstrelsy and neo-blackface that often surround Perry's films, his movies are just bad. As for Daniels, he's just a dysfunction pornographer.

  • Reelblack | February 6, 2013 3:15 PMReply

    I agree with Carey Carey. It's best not to generalize when talking about "Us" and "We." That being said, I think what people found troubling about your case examples was not the depiction of class in the films, it was the way they reverberated stereotypes long established in the history of film. I think Precious was an excellent, I appreciated the discomfort that Lee Daniels made me feel at he plight. He balanced it with "positive" characters but overall its a very dark movie. It was only when mainstream society started awarding the film with high praise that there was a backlash--we're not all dysfuntional obese hiv-positive teen moms. The power of good drama is that it makes us relate.

    To reimagine the text as a comedy shows disrespect to the film's intentions.

    As for Soul Plane and Booty Call, they are cult classics (somebody was buying them bootlegs). But as someone who is educated about the power of film and, how stereotypes have been used to keep us down, and how difficult it is to get a film made and distributed, those movies were completely offensive. Throw in "Who's You Caddy?" for good measure. The makers of those films I'm sure are good people, but they don't respect the struggle. The problem with making blackface renditions of successful Hollywood movies is that the dominant culture sees a variety of depictions of themselves onscreen. Each year, we're lucky to get half a dozen. If they were made as Dramas, Westerns or Sci-Fi, they would still not work for me.

    It's not a class issue at all. It's a self respect/artistic responsibility/ cultural awareness one.

  • Reelblack | February 11, 2013 4:01 PM

    Thanks, CC. Please spread the word. I'm really hoping people show and prove for this idea. #BLACKFILMNOW

  • CC | February 10, 2013 12:19 PM

    Mike D. of Reelblack TV!?... Black Film Now?

    If so, your interviews are priceless. Good luck with you new Indiegogo campaign.

  • reelblack | February 6, 2013 3:17 PM

    Oh yeah, #BLACKFILMNOW

  • CareyCarey | February 6, 2013 12:19 PMReply

    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".

    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, [don't get it twisted, convoluted or misunderstood] 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 their basic sentiment that it's awfully presumptuous to believe that you, me or anyone knows what each of us receives from a movie.

    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 a few). 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".

  • CareyCarey | February 6, 2013 1:26 PM

    No, thank you TAZ. It's always nice to know someone appreciates your efforts. And as you can see, I too was troubled by this article. But I sat on my hands b/c I've been accused of running my mouth a little too long. So, not wanting to offend anyone or bore them to death, I had to pack my punch in the fewest words possible (which is very hard for me because I write like I talk... and I AM a talker). So again, it's nice to know you smelled the flavor.

  • Taz | February 6, 2013 1:05 PM

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This article had me so troubled....I wrote a long soliloquy and decided to cut it short. You have said almost everything I erased this morning, including referencing Rocket and giving an example of why his premise is lacking.

  • willie dynamite | February 6, 2013 11:23 AMReply

    Interesting topic but I think you have to go a bit deeper. The intended audience for Precious and even The Help was not African Americans. Precious, which got a standing ovation at Sundance, inadvertently promoted a superior perspective and The Help was utilized to mitigate white guilt as it pertained to the Jim Crow era. That is why films like this are labeled as Oppression Porn. Now the comedies that you speak of are geared toward the African American audience. The African American audience chooses comedy over other genres, think about it, on a weekend after working a long work week and dealing with various forms of oppression, do you think black folks wanna go see a film like Precious? I have to disagree with you on Tyler Perry, people love Madea and when she is not in a film the box office reflects that. The audience that watches Precious is not the audience that watches Madea goes to jail.

  • TAZ | February 6, 2013 10:45 PM

    Willie Dynamite, I noticed the route it took which is why I mentioned it. But I am going to stop here. Tyler Perry films may not show in arthouse theaters but they are not regulated to just hood ones, whatever that means to you. Let's let this thing go. Have a good one!

  • TAZ | February 6, 2013 10:39 PM

    CareyCarey, know that I have admired many of your comments....some to point of pumping my fist in the air. Much admiration to you! And you are absolutely right and dang you for putting that song in my head. Read my edits, huh. *smiles.*

  • willie dynamite | February 6, 2013 7:57 PM

    As it pertains to Precious, you mentioned that it went the festival route. Please notice the route that it took. Sundace and Canne as opposed to PAFF and Fespaco. All of these moves are strategic just like Oprah and Tyler hopping on as producers. You are correct that it is a green thing which is why the distributor wanted to push this film to as large an audience as possible which is much larger than the black audience or the the fans of the book. When it came to my city it was in an arthouse theater not the hood one.

  • CareyCarey | February 6, 2013 2:06 PM

    "Both films had built in fans - fans of the book PUSH and fans of the stage plays. They were the driving audience. Both of which describes me, BTW." ~ TAZ

    DESCRIBES ME! I love, love, love that. I love it when people stand up and say "this is me, this is who I am, so don't put me in that suffocating box of "one of them folks". More importantly, as the Emotions said, if you didn't know and you wanna know "Don't ask my neighbor, ask ME".

    Taz, I read your other comments, and yes, even in your edited versions, you've killed this one.

  • Taz | February 6, 2013 1:26 PM

    Even if you are speaking theatrically, there are big differences between Precious and any of the Madea films. One was 'made' with a specific purpose in mind or intent to be true to the book and create a gripping cinematic film by Lee Daniels. One went the festival route before it was even picked up for distribution. One was years in the making. One had a book that many wanted to get their hands on. And one had the promotional backing of Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey among others. The Other was flipped from a stage play to a movie who already had shown in wide release and made in one weekend what Precious made over weeks with limited release - also thanks to the promotion on the Oprah Winfrey Show, etc. Both films had built in fans - fans of the book PUSH and fans of the stage plays. They were the driving audience. Both of which describes me, BTW. So I say all that say - the intended audience was the same: The current fans plus anyone else they can get to see the movie. Those who are willing to spend money to see the film in the theatre. Build the base, make more movies. Some things aren't black and white, they are just green.

  • willie dynamite | February 6, 2013 12:12 PM

    Let me clarify. I am speaking theatrically. Just look at how Precious was distributed and you will see who it was geared towards. Precious screened in various arthouse theaters, Madea did not. Precious was on the Oscar radar, Tyler's films were not... The driving audience behind Precious and The Help's huge Box Office were not Black People. Once it hit DVD and pay cable the audience broadened.

    It is deeper than asking someone their preference because that is opinion. Numbers do not lie. Box Office figures at various theaters can paint a very vivid picture. This is what distributors do all day.

  • Taz | February 6, 2013 11:38 AM

    "The audience that watches Precious is not the audience that watches Madea goes to jail."

    Sorry, but this is not true. I disagree with you on the intended audience for Precious as well, but I have specifically point out the Precious/Madea angle.

    The reason the author has to go deeper is because you can't use personal internal eye to draw boxes to put other people in. You can't know the motivation for why people like what they like and if you ask them, they are not going to give up their prejudices, etc. so you will never get the insight needed to create a plausible hypothesis.

  • Taz | February 6, 2013 10:19 AMReply

    I don't think you got it if your foundation is based exclusively on the haves and have nots as it does not adequately explain why members of both class are aligned in liking or disliking the same genre of movie. We, black culture as a whole, are too complex and if you want to get a glimmer of understanding, you should dig deeper.

  • monkeysuit | February 5, 2013 7:57 PMReply

    I don't agree at all. First off, tons of people take issue with Precious and Lee Daniels' shocking, animalistic images of what black, poor means.

    Secondly, Soul Plane and Booty Call give no indication of class. They give stereotypical images of blacks, which are externally assumed to be based on the low class. I agree that they are unfairly labeled "ghetto." The ghetto has nothing to do with bad filmmaking though. There are comedies which portray poor/working class black life that did not receive the same backlash such as Coming to America, Friday, Barbershop, Sister Act and others. These prove that there are ways of portraying the "hood" comedically without resorting to ridicule, mockery and dehumanization. On the other side of the coin, there are dramas with the similar subject manner that aren't as depressing and hopeless as Precious such as The Color Purple, Crooklyn or Claudine. They also are better made films than the ones Tyler Perry produces-- Madea or not.

    Lastly, I think the hostility towards Perry has more to do with the mediocrity of his films coupled with his ginormous success and dominance in the black American film world than simply the character, Madea.

  • getthesenets | February 5, 2013 6:44 PMReply

    not sure if I agree with premise.in fact I don't

    I do know that I've seen some very poorly done films that were received well by Black audiences because the characters were well educated, upwardly mobile and articulate.

    buppie-sploitation was very big in late 1990s/early 200s as a film genre.

    Audience was tired of hoodsploitation of the early to mid 90s where EVERY major studio Black film seemed to be dumbed down versions of Menace 2 Society. Hollywood , took notice as always, greenlit formulaic dramas with Black professionals instead.

  • Rocket | February 5, 2013 4:56 PMReply

    You overall point is an accurate one. I am convinced it is related to why reality TV is so popular. People want to feel superior. And as long as their are people on TV like the Real Basketball Wives of whatever they can do so. Those shows exist specifically because of people's need to feel superior. They can get on twitter, and facebook and talk about how low class so and so is. They look at people who supposedly have it all together and then poke fun at all their warts. There is pleasure in watching a woman like Kenya Moore have relationship issues. People watch those shows so they can feel better about their own lives. And then they can turn around and play self righteous and complain about how those shows are making black folks look bad. Make no mistake, these people are the ones driving the ratings for reality shows. People want to act like its just the folks in the 'hood watching Love and Hip Hop. No, the so-called bourgeois are the primary beneficiaries of that kind of programming.

  • Gigi Young | February 6, 2013 10:16 AM

    "People want to act like its just the folks in the 'hood watching Love and Hip Hop. No, the so-called bourgeois are the primary beneficiaries of that kind of programming."

    ding ding ding!

    I don't have cable, so the only reason I know shows like that--and even going back to Flavor of Love--exist is because of black bloggers. Even if I had cable I wouldn't watch them...just not my idea of entertainment. And these are the same people who will snicker and gossip about L&HH or BBW one day and call for a boycott over "negative images" the next, but are /always/ up in arms over Tyler Perry productions.

  • seyi peter-thomas | February 5, 2013 4:18 PMReply

    There's something interesting to me about this idea. I agree that we're more comfortable looking at images of poor and underprivileged people (black or white) when they're presented dramatically and sympathetically. But, isn't that partly because its uncomfortable to laugh at other people's misfortunes? Seeing Precious as a comedy sounds borderline reprehensible to me. But I agree there's something lacking - poor and working class black characters who are real, fully developed and therefore joyful (at least sometimes). Not sure the examples you listed are the answer exactly right though. The Charles S. Dutton show Roc comes to mind, so does Friday. Both as decent examples of comedies set against a backdrop of working class black people. But other than that, I can't think of much. Your comments reminded me of the feeling I had about Django Unchained. In the abstract, I'm OK with a fantastical genre movie set against the backdrop of slavery, as long as the atrocities that took place are treated respectfully. However, it concerns when this depiction of that time exists in the mainstream culture alone, without other, more reality-based depictions of slavery to counter it and put give it context. I think ultimately, if you have Medea, you need Precious. And maybe vice versa. But really, we need a realistic compassionate and well-observed middle ground. Thanks for getting me thinking.

  • Gigi Young | February 6, 2013 10:10 AM

    "Seeing Precious as a comedy sounds borderline reprehensible to me."

    Tchh...you'd be appalled at the number of GIFs created from the movie for use on Tumblr and message boards....

  • Patrice | February 5, 2013 4:14 PMReply

    You're definitely on to something. Check out Robin Kelley's book "Yo Mama's Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America." He explores this idea form what I can remember.

  • urbanauteur | February 5, 2013 4:12 PMReply

    Last of the Deconstructionist Tremor

  • Test | February 5, 2013 3:48 PMReply

    test

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