Precious and the Big Payback
The NAACP House of Shame
By ISHMAEL REED
"I think he's mentally ill. He's lost it. It's like he's departed from being a creative artist to being a basher. ... He's a forgotten man, eclipsed by women ascending to new heights and getting prizes. Instead of applauding them, he goes on a rampage."
-- Sapphire on Ishmael Reed’s state of mind, The St. Louis Post Dispatch, February 28, 2010
Suppose the producers of a nominated picture like “Hurt Locker,” donated one million dollars to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and on the night of the Oscar presentations “Hurt Locker” received Oscars for best picture, best actress, best supporting actress and a special honor was awarded to the “producer.”
This is exactly what happened at the NAACP Image awards last Friday night. The film “Precious” received six awards as a kind of payback to Tyler Perry who donated one million plus dollars to the organization last November.
As a result, the NAACP gave segregated Hollywood the green light to admire this abhorrent, repellant movie. They must be gloating over at EW.com (Entertainment Weekly) sites with connections to the Oscars establishment and where my Op-Ed about “Precious” printed in The New York Times was the subject of criticism by Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum. Their criticism was picked up by Sasha Stone at awardsdaily.com. They and the bloggers who weighed in about my state of mind and my low I.Q. and how I was connected to the part of the body that plays a key role in the elimination of wastes will probably use these NAACP awards as justification for their defense of the film and as evidence of the black community’s support for “Precious.”
Owen Gleiberman, a man whom I have never met, said that my criticism of the movie said more about me than about the movie. He never said what my criticism of the movie said about me. I also challenged Ms. Scwarzbaum to comment about an article printed in a Jewish magazine, Tablet (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Why Jewish producers kept Jewish women off stage and screen,” 10/20/’09), which pointed to the discrimination against Jewish women by Jewish producers, from the early days of Hollywood to the period of Woody Allen and Larry David (a guy who thinks it funny to appear in a scene eating a cookie shaped like a black penis.)
The producers’ justification, historically, was that they didn’t want their women to play the kind of roles they assigned to black and white gentile women.
Ms. Scwarzbaum didn’t answer, but seems satisfied with the roles assigned to black women in “Precious,” which now bears the imprimatur of the NAACP, the nation’s leading Civil Rights organization. On Tuesday, when I debated Cameron Bailey, the African American co-director of the Toronto Film Festival, who brought the film to Canada, the NAACP awards were the first thing that he brought up. He also followed the sales pitch directed by Lionsgate that the critics of the film were either odd or mentally ill, as a way of minimizing the widespread discontent about this film among black Americans. The sales office has singled out Armond White as the lone critic opposing the film, and seeks to dismiss him as a “contrarian,” a trend begun by the New YorkTimes’ critic A.O. Scott, for whom the family in “Precious” was the typical impoverished black family. Bailey used the same word to criticize White.
Now, Bailey and the critics at EW, including amateur shrink Owen Gleiberman, and Sasha Stone would probably be outraged by a white producer receiving awards from an organization of which he is a benefactor, but wlll probably ignore or even seek to justify the million dollars plus donation that Tyler Perry, producer of “Precious,” gave to the NAACP in November.
Now if I am mentally ill for criticizing this film as Sapphire suggests, then I’m lucky to be spared the kind of racism that black mental patients experience. I’ve examined the kind of treatment accorded the poor and the black, the kind of people who are treated like trash by city governments, the kind of people who are experimented upon by the pharmaceutical companies, while white middle class patients receive talk therapy. Black kids are treated with toxic anti-depressant drugs even when it’s not necessary, a clear case of behavior modification. I had enough creative ability remaining to stage a play, called Body Parts, about the exploitation of African Americans and Africans by rogue pharmaceutical companies that distribute drugs with full knowledge of harmful results. Paying stiff fines is just the cost of doing business. In this play and others I, with the help of Berkeley’s Black Repertory Theater and The Nuyorican Poets Café, have created roles that challenge black actors and actresses, instead of degrading them with cliché roles as male sexual predators, prostitutes and women who marry their husband’s executioner.
Cecil Brown and I produced the movie “Two Fer” about conflicts on a college campus, which like “The Great Debaters” and “Miracle at Saint Anna” isn’t likely to wow a crossover audience. Spike Lee’s “The Miracle at Saint Anna” was praised at a reception I attended which honored those Buffalo Soldiers who liberated Italian towns and cities during World War II.
It was held on Feb.12, at the San Francisco Presidio, where the audience viewed the movie “Inside Buffalo.” The black soldiers received honors from the Italians years before honors came for them during the Clinton administration. They were commanded by Southern officers because they were said to know how to handle Niggers and were often sent to the front without adequate ammunition. It was Spike Lee who brought this story to the screen instead of Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, who can do “Mr.” (in the Color Purple) but can’t find space in his war movies for Ivan J. Houston, a Buffalo Soldier, author of the book, Black Warriors, The Buffalo Soldiers or World War II. When is the last time you saw black soldiers enacting heroic deeds in a film?
Some of those at the reception, attended by over four hundred Italians, Italian Americans and others wept when an official from the Italian consulate told the black soldiers, “We will never forget.”
In Oakland, the theater that presented “Miracle at Saint Anna” offered only one showing at 10:30 p.m. “Saint Anna” was eclipsed by “Precious.”
Sapphire charges that I have been eclipsed by black women authors, many of whom I was the first to publish. She says that I have been left behind with no prizes. That may be true, but the same can’t be said about some of the prominent black women intellectuals and authors who have been offended by Sarah Siegel’s movie. One of the black women writers whom I published when she was a student is Terri McMillan. Al Young and I were also the first to publish an excerpt from Ntozake Shange’s “Colored Girls….” I introduced the poetry of the late Lucille Clifton to Langston Hughes who published her in a major anthology for the first time. (If an “old”- the adjective used by some of the young black womanist defenders of the film used about me- loser like me can manage to publish the works of over thirty black women writers from the U.S and Africa over the last five years, why can’t Sapphire do the same and shouldn’t she avoid verbs like “rampaging” in light of her poem “Wild Thing” which helped create the hysteria that resulted in five black and Hispanic kids being sent to prison for a crime that they didn’t commit.)
During a recent interview that I conducted with Terri McMillan, the most popular of African American women writers, she was fuming as she said that the film “went too far.” Sapphire might dismiss me as mentally ill and jealous of black women who have eclipsed me and left me without prizes, but what is her answer to Ms. McMillan who is certainly not hurting for book sales, or Princeton Professor Melisa Harris-Lacewell? Is she crazy? Does her criticism of “Precious” say more about her than about the movie? She wrote “Undoubtedly Mo'Nique has given an amazing performance in Precious. But the critical and popular embrace of this depiction of a monstrous black mother has potentially important, and troubling, political meaning.”
Apparently Gabourey Sidibe’s mother Alice Tan Ridley also has problems with the film. My response to my critic Sasha Stone and the mob of hateful furious bloggers she raised at awardsdaily was that during one of her shopping sprees in Paris she might buy some gifts for Ms. Ridley. She’s the real heroine of this whole sorry business. Ms. Ridley was offered a role in the movie but after reading the novel “Push” turned it down. She’d rather earn her keep by singing in the New York subway than perform in “Precious.”
When I informed the hateful bloggers at awardsdaily.com of this fact they said that I’d made it up, but when I referred them to YouTube, where she belts out a stirring rendition of “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” they thought it cruel of me to direct them to the video. They are part of a nation of junkies, and “Precious” has become a sort of non-prescription drug for them. A cheap high. Some of those whites who defended the film against my criticisms admitted that they hadn’t even seen it and I’m suffering from mental illness? Now the NAACP award will provide them with more psychological methadone. It will give the all white Oscars’ Board of Governors (37 men, 6 women) an excuse to salute this evil wretched thing, whose reward by the NAACP shows the sad decline of Julian Bond, who, when a young man, had a future so bright that he was considered for a vice presidential nomination. (Vice President of the Board of Governors is Kathleen Kennedy, who gave us “The Color Purple.” This means that “Precious” is a shoo-in for one of two Oscars.)
On Friday night, Julian Bond, the outgoing president of an organization that has been fighting stereotypes since 1915, shared the stage with a serial stereotypes trafficker and union buster, Tyler Perry, whose movie efforts were summed up by Spike Lee, the director of at least three movie classics as: “coonery and buffoonery.”
In the New York Times, Charles Blow, in a column called “Tyler Perry’s Crack Mother,” challenged the repeated use of the black crack mother image by the film-maker. He cited a 2007 study of college undergraduates published in the Journal of Ethnicity and Substance Abuse which found that young blacks’ rates of illicit drug use was substantially lower than their counterparts, with black women having the lowest rates of all.” Yet Owen Gleiberman says that the movie reflects reality. One of the awards ceremony’s guests was Quentin Tarantino, whose movie “Pulp Fiction” was full of lame and goofy racist jokes and memorable lines like:
Jimmie: "When you came pullin' in here, did you notice a sign on the front of my house that said 'Dead Nigger Storage?'"
Jules: "Jimmie, you know I ain't seen no shit…"... More »
Why was Julian Bond looking so grim during the ceremonies? He has a sense of history. He knows that the NAACP was not founded by minstrels but by intellectuals. They fought “Birth Of A Nation” and “Gone With The Wind.” Walter White, then NAACP’s secretary, went to Hollywood in 1942 and protested the roles in which black actors were cast. One of his allies was ex-presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, who, during a speech delivered at a luncheon for Hollywood big wigs at 20th Century Fox, said:
“… that many of the persons responsible for Hollywood films belong to a racial and religious group which had been a target of Hitler, and that they should be the last to be guilty of doing to another minority the things which had been done to them.”
White “urged Hollywood to have courage enough to shake off its fears and taboos and to depict the Negro in flims as a normal human being and an integral part of the life of America and the world.” Walter White was opposed by those actors who benefited from stereotypical roles that in hindsight seem benign in light of the kind of black characters that Hollywood is selling today.
“If the [NAACP] secretary had charmed producers, directors, and white stars, many of Hollywood’s African American actors were downright hostile to his presence. They were furious that he came to town and tried to change the movies without consulting them. The Mammy stereotype and clownish roles had provided a steady income for Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Stepin Fetchit, Clarence Muse, and a handful of others. Fearing the secretary’s attempt to clean up the industry would result in their loss of livelihoods, they were gleeful when his first foray produced pious sentiment and little else. White disagreed, believing that his agitation would lead to expanded acting opportunities. But more to the point, he scorned his critics. Realistically, he said, he didn’t expect thanks for his work, but he did expect those actors, who ultimately benefit from his negotiations ‘without their having to lift a finger,’ would remain gratefully silent.’”*
Though White didn’t accomplish much his agitation did succeed in getting David O. Selznick to replace the black rapist in Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind,” with a white one but now the black rapist is back in full force with “Precious,” and its business model “The Color Purple”; even President Obama was shown on MAD TV as a Mandingo stud in bed with Hillary Clinton. Sapphire says that we need more films about black rapists.
In the days of Walter White and Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP had some fight, but now this proud organization has been reduced to becoming a ward of corporate America. Promoting the artery clogging products of fast foods merchants.Taking money from criminal banks like the Bank of America and from FedEx, which recently had to pay 50 million dollars to black employees for racial discrimination, which is something that Annie Day of the Revolutionary Communist Party might note. She wrote a piece denouncing my CounterPunch article “The Selling Of Precious.” She called me--you guessed it--a “misogynist,” your typical white middle class feminist. Applying a double standard to white and black men; deferential toward their fathers, brothers, employers and gurus; unwilling to give the brothers some slack. This woman is part of a cult that revolves around a white patriarch--a cult that was abandoned by some blacks who accused it of “white chauvinism.” A woman or her co-writer Carl Dix, a black man, will never lead this group. Their praise of the movie “Precious” jibes with that of Barbara Bush. Strange bedfellows indeed. Imagine the Revolutionary Communist Party having to wake up every morning next to Barbara Bush.
The awards were also sponsored by Disney who’s “Princess and The Frog” demeans African religion, a fact noticed by the religion editor of the Times, Samuel G. Freedman (Times,2/20/’10). And now the NAACP has given the segregated** Motion Picture Academy an excuse to perpetrate a cruel joke on the black Americans on Sunday night by awarding an actress an Oscar whose role in the movie was to ask her daughter to assist her in achieving an orgasm. NAACP founders W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells, who risked her life to spark a drive to end the lynching of black men in the South, must be rolling over in their graves.
Ishmael Reed is the publisher of Konch. His latest book is Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
* White, The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP by Kenneth Robert Janken. New York: The New Press, 2003.
* *The DGA[ Directors Guild of America] reports that just 4% of its director membership is black; the WGA says that 4.5% of members employed as TV writers and 3.2% of members employed as film writers are black (as of 2007, the last year for which data is available). And Paris Barclay, director-showrunner of "In Treatment" and co-chair of the DGA's Diversity Task Force, estimates that up to 82% of all episodes in television are "directed by Caucasian men."