Yes, you read that right. A movie about an illiterate Harlem teen raped by her father is too comforting. Here’s why.
In the 1993 Afterword to her 1970 novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes of the difficulty of achieving her desired effect of not only touching readers but also moving them. What’s the difference between being touched and moved? When you have a novel about a poor young girl who’s convinced she’s ugly, who is raped and impregnated by her own father, it’s almost impossible not to be touched, not to feel pity. Morrison wants readers to go beyond this level, though: she wants them to “interrogate themselves” for their own role in the demise of this young girl (or those like her). The Bluest Eye, in my opinion, succeeds in rising above the pity trap; however, I’m not sure that the movie Precious does.
Precious is based on the 1996 novel Push by Sapphire (the movie was renamed to avoid confusion with this year’s X-Men-wannabe film Push), but it shares similar subject matter with The Bluest Eye. Though it’s set in the 1980s rather than the 1940s, Precious deals with a dark-skinned African American girl’s struggle to value herself in a world where the constant message of media, peers, and family is that she is ugly and unlovable. Like The Bluest Eye’s Pecola Breedlove, Precious’s Claireece Precious Jones becomes pregnant with her father’s baby (in Precious’s case, twice).
Unlike Pecola, Precious has an extra burden to bear: illiteracy. Still in junior high at age sixteen, Precious knows her alphabet but has trouble sounding out the simplest of words. The film is, in many ways, an inspirational ode to the power of language. Once Precious learns to read and write through the individualized programs of Each One Teach One, she begins to be able to speak for herself, to gain some element of control over her life. By the end of the film, Precious is reading at an eighth grade level—but, as Precious’s voiceover reminds us, a journey begins with the smallest step.
That is a cliché, right? I begin to wonder if I’ve lost all touch with reality when I read rave review after rave review of Precious, but I think literacy as empowerment, especially for minorities in America, is a subject that easily falls into trite, conscience-soothing entertainment if not handled well. Precious is certainly several steps up from the genre I refer to as “inspirational teacher movies”: the acting is genuinely Oscar-worthy, and Precious’ progress is kept within a realistic scope for the time frame of the movie. But I’m more challenged—and moved—by The Bluest Eye, which directly questions the literacy-as-empowerment trope by including text from the classic Dick and Jane primers of yore. Passages from Dick and Jane appear at the beginning of the novel, first in distinct sentences and then collapsed into text without spacing or punctuation. The idealized white middle-class life depicted in Dick and Jane makes about as much sense to Pecola Breedlove as this jumbled text, Morrison implies, even though Pecola possesses literacy. Reading does nothing to ease the sense of dissonance between her life and the Dick and Jane life. Moreover, reading does her little good as long as the reading material reinforces the belief that white is good and black is bad. Morrison’s novel is not inspirational; instead, it threatens our comfortable view of the world.
(Granted, more literature by African American writers is available to Precious in the 1980s than there is to Pecola in the 1940s. The novel Push even mentions that Precious and her class read The Color Purple. Still, the movie Precious seems a little naïve in its celebration of reading as power.)
In addition to a more complex treatment of literacy, The Bluest Eye offers a more nuanced view of human nature. In Precious, the rapist father is entirely absent from the movie, except in blurry flashbacks to moments of abuse. He isn’t really a character at all. Precious’s mother, Mary (played by Mo’Nique), not only enables the father’s abuse but verbally, physically, and sexually abuses Precious herself. The word used to describe Mary in almost every review I’ve read is “monstrous.” The movie does encourage us to view her solely as a monster. Even a late scene possibly intended to grant her a tidbit of humanity ends up reinforcing our disgust with her. We should, of course, be disgusted with her actions. But the movie asks us to view her as a sub-human aberration, which makes things a lot more comfortable for viewers. If “monsters” like Precious’s parents are the only ones responsible for Precious’s pain, then we—and the rest of the human race—are off the hook.
In The Bluest Eye, however, Morrison performs an incredibly difficult balancing act of explaining the causes—individual and social—behind Pecola’s parents’ behavior, without in any way excusing that behavior. As Morrison herself explains in the Afterword to The Bluest Eye, she “did not want to dehumanize the characters who trashed Pecola and contributed to her collapse.” We learn how Pecola’s father was symbolically, though not quite literally, raped by white men in his adolescence. Again, Morrison does not excuse his rape of his daughter on those grounds, but we are able to see how he is not only perpetrator but also victim. He is human. Abuse or rape is even harder to understand when we acknowledge that it is committed by a human being. But uncomfortable truths like this make us question ourselves: they move us.
So, while I’ll certainly be pulling for Precious to pile on the acting nominations and awards, I’m overall a little disappointed. The subject matter of the film shocks us, but it allows us to remain in that position of superior, tongue-clucking pity. It does not move us—and it could have.