A Glimpse Into The Black Abyss America Likes To See
Here’s the problem: despite the success of famous black actors like Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson and the like, mainstream audiences from the racially generic dominant community don’t particularly care for black movies that paint black characters as overwhelmingly heroic or positive. Mainstream America likes its black films a little more gritty with black men being the scum of the earth. I just read a review of the film that gave the stark example that while a movie like The Great Debaters which cost fifteen million dollars in 2007 and grossed a decent thirty three million dollars or so since its release, a movie like The Color Purple, which also cost fifteen million dollars in 1985, grossed almost one hundred million dollars by 1987.
In the Color Purple, Danny Glover’s character Mister was a man you really didn’t mind hating. Mister treated the heroine, his wife Celie Harris played by Whoopi Goldberg, like a slave. He abused her. Celie was also abused and sexually raped by her stepfather. By the time she is fourteen, she has already had two children by her stepfather who takes them away from her and forces her to marry the local widower named Albert Johnson whom she comes to refer to as Mister. Mister beats her often and intimidates her into complete submission. These were two black men America really learned to enjoy hating and stood in line at the box office to do so.
Conversely, Denzel Washington’s character Melvin B. Tolson in The Great Debaters is cerebral. He is an instructor at historically black Wiley College working to place his debating team on equal footing with white students from ivory league schools. Mr. Tolson struggles to keep his team together in the American South during the early part of the century when Jim Crow laws were an institutionalized part of the social fabric. The movie depicts several instances where Mr. Tolson encounters lynch mobs and must exhibit smarts and courage to keep his students safe. The Wiley team eventually succeeds and wins the ultimate, a debate with the white students from none other than Harvard University. That was a black man America could admire, but who wanted to pay to see that?
So given this oversimplified context, what can we expect for a movie like Precious, a screen adaptation of the book Push from author Sapphire, formerly Ramona Lofton. Precious is the story of a young and grossly overweight African American girl who is functionally illiterate and full of self loathing. At just sixteen years old, Claireece Precious Jones has already given birth to two children fathered by her father. She suffers constant physical and psychological abuse from her mother Mary, played by Mo’Nique. From what I understand, in one extremely violent scene, Mary drops her three day old grandson, Precious’ baby, in order to try and bitch slap Precious into the middle of next week. If mainstream America enjoyed hating Mister, they will go utterly ape shit over the hateful sentiment that will be aimed at the family of this girl.
When the movie made its test debut at the Sundance festival, rumor is that it received three standing ovations. Test proved that America was ready to see another film full of black family dysfunction, cruelty of a mental, physical, and sexual nature. Since then, the marketing team for the studio that obtained the rights for the film has pulled out all the stops. Indeed, I must confess that when I heard the first reviews of the movie while listening to National Public Radio, I was intrigued. There aren’t that many movies that feature a predominantly black cast aimed squarely at middle America. This was a movie that I thought might be worth supporting.
But like most movies and documentaries about life in black America, the black community is not the prime target for this film. The black community isn’t a secondary target. The black community doesn’t even register in the marketing plan. This film and its story is produced for the sole benefit of the racially generic mainstream America that continues to define what it means to be black in America.
If mainstream America wanted to see black films like The Great Debaters, Antoine Fisher, a Soldier Story, Boomerang, Bamboozled, and the like, we would have them. These black films not only told a story, but helped to offer a different perspective, helped to build a more rounded idea of life in the black community. But this isn’t where the money is to be made. Overwhelmingly, the most profitable perspective of black life, the one that America loves to see most, is the one without much redemption for the main characters.
Depictions of the black community in its lowest form will always get the dominant community’s collective attention. It’s why so many people tune into the news or watch the show Cops or whatever suffices as a police chase that ends with black people going to jail or being brutally assaulted by law enforcers. America likes that kind of stuff. And America loves the voyeurism associated with peeking into the blackest abyss of life in the black community. There is little doubt that Precious will be a box office phenomenon. This is the type of story mainstream America wants to use as its foundation for its limited understanding of black people.