Is the film Precious racist? Parsing Ishmael Reed’s argument

CAUTION: This post will contain spoilers about the film Precious.

There is a ‘controversy’ over whether or not the Oscar-nominated film Precious (based on the novel Push written by Sapphire) is racist. I place the word controversy in quotation marks because I’m not entirely convinced it is a true controversy; I think it’s more of an overblown media contrivance. A couple of people wrote a couple of articles accusing the movie of being racist, and these articles then got repeated and appropriated and regurgitated in several different media (including blogs).

The other morning I tuned in to the CBC Radio 1 show Q hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. At the top of the show he hosted a debate between the writer of one of these articles, Ishmael Reed, and Cameron Bailey, a writer and the programmer of the Toronto International Film Festival. It should be said, because it’s an important nugget, that both of these men are black. (I’ll use the terms black and white, adopting Ishmael Reed’s usage.) Also, most of the actors in Precious, the director and main producer of the film, the author of the novel it is based on, and many of the film’s financiers are black.

I’m actually not writing this to weigh in heavily on whether or not the movie is racist. I’m more interested in the phenomenon of creating false ‘both-sides’ dichotomies. There is an effort in the media to appear fair and balanced (no evocation of Fox ‘News’ intended) by finding someone to argue ‘the other side’ of an issue that does not rightly have another side. For example, when celebrating the anniversary of the Apollo missions and the moon landing, it’s not necessary to balance out an interview with NASA scientists by hosting a conspiracy theorist who claims the moon landings were a hoax.

Furthermore—and this is the nut—if you are going to report on (or create!) a controversy, then have enough integrity to vet your guests.

Jian Ghomeshi and/or his producers at Q decided to have on one of the two men who created all the ballyhoo over Precious, Ishmael Reed, presumably without checking to see if maybe he’s a bit…eccentric. (Really I wanted to write nutjob-crazy-ass-freakazoid-hate-filled-bigot, but I’m trying to be polite and at least give this guy the benefit of the doubt. For now.)

If you read Reed’s screed (ha!) on Counterpunch, you may have little doubt that this man, far from being a balanced individual with apt intellectual opinions, is clearly a bigot.  He comes off as a racist (he doesn’t like white people or black people who aren’t the right kind of black), a sexist and misogynist (he displays great disdain and disrespect for women), and a homophobe (he is baffled that a gay character could be presented positively). Also, I don’t know if there is a term for this (sizeist?), but he seems to dislike obese people. Oh, and he questions the veracity of incest/rape victims, is a conspiracy theorist, seems to be a prude (expressing disdain for the prurience of thongs), is a bad writer, and is just a plain old bad arguer (he throws up mountains of non-evidence having nothing to do with his premise and often employs logical fallacies, his favourites being ad hominem and straw-man attacks).

These are heavy claims I’m making. Racist, misogynist, homophobe, conspiracy theorist. They are of course my opinion based on his words. But let’s take a look at the evidence and you can decide for yourself. I’m going to parse Reed’s screed:

“Seeing that no one had supplied women with panties that were meant to be visible while wearing low cut jeans, [Sarah Siegel] captured the niche and made a fortune. With five million dollars, she invested in the film Precious….”

This displays the aforementioned disdain for the prurience of thongs, and also the fact that Reed is a horrible arguer. How the hell does the fact that an investor made her fortune by selling underwear prove that the movie Precious is racist?

He also goes after Sapphire (choosing to out her real name, showing disrespect for her choice to have a pen name):

“…she joined in on the lynching of five black and Hispanic boys…. She made money, and became famous. They were innocent!”

This is a completely separate issue from the movie, but Reed seems to enjoy using ad-hominem and straw-man attacks. This particular personal attack seems to be setting up the argument that because Sapphire wrote a poem about a case in which five men confessed to and were convicted of brutally beating and raping a woman in Central Park—men who later recanted their confessions and turned out to be not guilty—she is a bad person and a racist and that her book and the movie based on it are also bad and racist. I suppose that’s his not-entirely-logical argument.

A case analogous to the West Memphis Three, this is an excellent argument for tidying up the justice system and against the death penalty (there was no “lynching,” by the way—this is just a term Reed misleadingly employs). What it’s not is in any way related to the movie Precious, the book Push, or the supposed premise of Reed’s article.

(For those interested here’s a synopsis of the Central Park Jogger case Reed refers to.)

Okay, back to the Reed screed:

“Precious, about a pregnant 350 pound illiterate black teenager….”

Keep in mind this first mention of Precious’s weight—it’ll come up again. And again. And again.

“…the image of the black male as sexual predator has created a profit center for over one hundred years….”

I won’t argue that there is a problem in society with the demonization of black men (and non-whites in general), but I will argue that this movie is not about Precious’s father, who rapes her at least twice and impregnates her twice. The father is not a character. He’s not meant to be. He is not given a back story or even a face. He is symbolic. He is symbolic of a sad and true fact of life—that men abuse, rape, and oppress women with shocking and alarming regularity.

“But politicians, the KKK, Nazis, film, television, etc, had done the black male as a rapist to death.”

Okay, I understand this feeling—I really do. I’m queer and I could happily go the rest of my life without seeing another movie in which the gay character has to commit suicide, or be killed, or kill someone in the end. But if we strip away the colour, it is again a sad and true fact that men rape and abuse women with shocking and alarming regularity. It’s not limited to race. I don’t know how proportionate the representation of white versus black men as rapists is to the actual numbers of white and black men in the world. It likely is disproportionate.

However, this is a story about an uneducated girl living in the poorest of poor environments. This is a movie about poverty and what it does to people. And like it or not, the poorest people in most North American cultures are often black, aboriginal, Hispanic—in other words, non-white. Why? That is the real question.

“… which they saw as selling a black film to white audiences (the people to whom CNN and MSNBC are referring to [sic] when they invoke the phrase ‘The American People.’)”

Ummm…where’s the evidence for that? Do you have proof that CNN and MSNBC mean ‘whiteys’ when they refer to “The American People”? If you state something as fact, you’ve got to have proof. If you don’t have proof, then you have to qualify your statement as opinion.

“Three standing ovations… at Sundance convinced some of the business people that although white audiences might decline to support films that show cerebral blacks [such as] The Great Debaters…they would probably enjoy a film in which blacks were shown as incestors and pedophiles.”

While I do know that “incestors” is not a word, I do not know the intricate political, social, and psychological reasons that someone would choose to see Precious and not The Great Debaters. I know that the financial success of movies rides on promotion and hype—how much money is put into promoting them. I don’t think I saw a single preview or commercial for The Great Debaters, but I saw many for Precious. This doesn’t answer the question of why a studio would put money behind one movie and not another, but that’s a question for the studio heads I believe.

Here I will point out that Reed obsessively attacks Oprah Winfrey throughout his screed, who (along with Tyler Perry and others) is an executive producer* of Precious. While Reed seems to indicate that Winfrey’s backing of the movie makes her an evil tool of white power, he says nothing of her also producing The Great Debaters. I guess that’s inconvenient to Reed’s chosen paradigm.

“…when Lionsgate’s co-presidents for theatrical marketing…said of Precious, ‘There is simply a gold mine of opportunity here,’ they were on the money. In an interview [Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival] said that [Precious] might hit ‘a cultural chord’ because of all of the discussion about race prompted by the election of President Obama.”

Well, yeah. Sorry, dude, but welcome to the world of business and marketing. That’s it! It’s all about cynicism, manipulation, chasing the dollar, and using any political means necessary to rake in more and more of these dollars. I don’t particularly like that seedy world, but that’s what happens for every movie; it’s not some grand racist conspiracy—it’s business. The same thing happens whether a phone company tries to sell you a plan, a record label tries to sell you an artist, or Coca-Cola tries to sell you a Coke.

Reed doesn’t seem to have a firm hold on exactly what he’s arguing. Does he think the people who made the movie (black people) are racist? Does he think the people who financially backed the movie (some black, some white) are racist? Or does he just hate business and marketing? I’d be behind Reed if he were arguing that the money-grubbing politicking of marketing is icky. But that’s not his contention. He contends that the movie is racist, yet he keeps coughing up as ‘proof’ things such as the fact that the film had a marketing strategy.

Reed goes on to say that after learning about this marketing plan he wanted Sarah Siegel to change the name of her panty company from So Low to How Low. This is the second reference to the fact that one of the investors in the movie made her fortune from selling low-rise underwear. It’s also worth noting that Reed refers to Siegel as “Sarah” every time he mentions her, which is a clear if subtle indication of disrespect. The journalistic tendency is to refer to people by their last name in articles.

I have many favourite parts of Reed’s screed, but this is definitely among them—an entire paragraph describing Siegel’s appearance:

“…a manicured, buffed Sarah, who doesn’t go lightly on the eye shadow, looks better [than some right-wing, racist wingnuts Reed compares her to]. She is salmon colored and though middle-aged wears baby doll clothes and if you Google her name, Sarah Siegel, along with ‘images’ you’ll find her posing in photos some of which have blacks smooching her [sic].”

Really, need I say anything in response to this? It pretty much speaks for itself.

Okay, just one thing!

‘I would like to propose that the movie Precious is racist. My proof is that one of the financial backers of the film wears eye shadow and baby-doll clothes (whatever that means) and has even been photographed being “smooched” by black people. I rest my case.’

“Sarah Siegel has joined an innovative marketing plan that couples Obama’s name with the most extreme of sexual crimes.”

Whatthefuck? Somehow now Siegel, an investor in the movie, is being credited with creating the film’s marketing plan, and this marketing plan couples Barack Obama with rape?!?! Reed is the original Superman leaping tall buildings in a single bound! The leap he makes here is not only a complete trouncing of logic, but I’d go as far as saying that it’s potentially libelous.

Reed quotes Armond White, the other guy whose article arguing that Precious is racist has been bandied about, repeated, appropriated, and regurgitated. In his article White compares Precious to Birth of a Nation, a 1915 silent film based on the novel The Clansman, which promoted white supremacy and depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroic.

This alone should be an erratic enough statement to discount Armond White’s article. But not only does Reed endorse and freely quote from it, he one-ups it, saying that Precious makes the director of Birth of a Nation “look like a progressive.” Yikes. Seriously. I need a coffee….

Okay, I’m back. Sigh, just in time for Reed’s denial of rape and incest, or at least his seeming preference for keeping such things tidily under the rug.

“Indeed, the business model for both the book [and the film]…was the black incest product, The Color Purple.”

Reed seems to deplore anyone shining a light on the fact that women and girls are raped and molested with shocking and alarming regularity. How dare someone tell a story about a woman being raped or molested!

In the Q debate Reed denies that incest occurs in the black community and lays an unfounded ad hominem attack on his arch nemesis Sarah Seigel, all in one fell swoop: “There’s probably more incest happening in Sarah Siegel’s group than in the African-American community.” I don’t know what “Sarah Siegel’s group” refers to—Siegels? Women? Financiers of films? Underwear designers? Hollywood types?

More from Reed’s article:

“But even that incest film doesn’t go as far as Precious, which shows both mother and father engaged in a sexual assault on their daughter in graphic detail….”

This is false. The scene that shows Precious being raped by her father is shocking and disturbing, but there is not much graphic detail. First of all, it’s out of focus. Secondly, it quickly dissipates into one of Precious’s escapist fantasies—her way of disconnecting from the reality of her brutal existence. The scene that insinuates the sexual assault of Precious by her mother is just that—an insinuation. It’s unambiguous, but it shows nothing.

“The naked black skinned man Carl of medium built [sic] who rapes a 350 pound daughter, who elsewhere in the film goes about flattening people with one punch….”

Definitely one of my favourite of Reed’s nonsensical yet illustrative ‘arguments.’ Here Reed alludes to the fact that a 350-pound teenager could not possibly be raped because…what? She’s too fat? He repeats this claim in the Q interview by saying, “Not only does the father rape a 350-pound woman…” and then trailing off into derisive laughter. To his credit, Ghomeshi calls him on this, asking if that fact stretches credulity. Reed does not answer the question. Not to his credit, Ghomeshi lets him get away with not answering the question.

This is vile, offensive, contemptible stuff. I can’t think of words to describe the derision I want to heap upon Reed. I want every feminist, social worker, rape or incest survivor, at-risk worker, teacher, counselor, psychologist, cognitive scientist, women’s shelter worker, V-Day warrior, women’s rights advocate, anti-violence crusader, etc. to descend upon Ishmael Reed and school him in the realities of physical/sexual violence against women and battered-woman syndrome.

Women of all shapes and sizes can be and are raped and abused with shocking and alarming regularity. To suggest that because Precious punched some kid in the face means that she could not be raped is blatantly absurd and clearly contemptuous. To suggest that she could have overpowered her attacker because she may have weighed more than him is to ignore everything we know about the psychology of abuse.

Reed goes on to refer to Precious’s father as “a vile prop,” “a person with no story and no humanity,” and quotes someone as saying that he is “the real victim of the movie.” Vile, offensive, absurd, contemptible—these words just don’t seem enough. Yes, clearly the “real” victim of the story is the rapist who isn’t given a full arc, as opposed to the illiterate, poor, chronically abused, raped, teenaged mother of two who is infected with AIDS by her rapist father. Sure thing.

As I stated earlier, Precious’s father is not meant to be a character in the movie; that’s the whole point—he’s symbolic. The story is about Precious, about the abuse and oppression of women, poor people, and minorities. The story is not about the father, his character, his motivation, his psychology, his back story. That would be another movie. Perhaps Ishmael Reed should write it. But this movie is about the victim.

I want to show respect but I can’t: Fuck you, Ishmael. Fuck you for denying that a large woman could be raped. Fuck you for deploring stories of women’s abuse. Fuck you for painting the rapist character as the victim. Check out these (U.S.) statistics from RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network):  One in six women will be sexually abused in her lifetime. Every two minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. About 73% of rape victims know their rapists. Only 60% of sexual assaults are actually reported. And only about 6% of rapists will spend a day in jail for their crime.

So fuck you.

Hey, how about we lighten the tone with some more unproven ad hominem attacks?

TheRoot is The Washington Post’s black zine…. The zine’s black face is Henry Louis Gates, Jr…. TheRoot has provided cover for Precious probably because Gates is tight with Oprah Winfrey and wrote a kiss up book about her.”

This is an absolutely perfect example of the classic conspiracy theorist tactic: Anyone or anything that disproves your conspiracy is in on the conspiracy. The only possible reason that the “black face” (WTF?) of a black zine could support the film Precious is because the movie was promoted by Oprah Winfrey and said “black face” is a Winfrey ass-kisser. (P.S., Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is also the U.S. Commissar of African American Culture.)

Reed’s conspiracy-theorist craziness is on further exhibit in the Q debate. Reed says that the only people who praise the movie are white critics, which Cameron Bailey refutes by saying that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) showered the film with eight nominations and six awards. Reed says, “He paid for that. He gave them a million dollars. Tyler Perry did.” Incredulous, Bailey asks, “You’re saying Tyler Perry paid for those awards?” to which Reed answers, “Yeah.” Also incredulous, Jian Ghomeshi asks, “He bought the NAACP?” and Reed responds, “He gave them a million dollars.” Gotta love Cameron Bailey for realizing the absurdity of the ‘debate’ at this point, saying, “Well once we enter the realm of conspiracy theories, I have to just leave it there.”

More from Reed’s article:

“The white characters are altruistic types, there to help downtrodden black people and are among those who are to be admired.”

Maybe. I’m going to maybe allow this argument, but I’m giving it a 5% strength as it pertains to the film Precious. There are hardly any white people in the movie at all. There’s Mariah Carey’s counselor character, whose race is questioned but never discovered. Every other character is black, although Paula Patton’s teacher character Blu Rain and Lenny Kravitz’s Nurse John are “light-skinned.” More on that soon.

“According to this film, if you’re a lucky black woman, a white man will rescue you from the clutches of evil black men.”

First of all, I repeat that there is no “white man” saviour in this movie. Second, no one is “rescued” in any real sense. Precious is perhaps semi-rescued by a black (though “light-skinned”), female teacher who shows her respect and caring and provides her with an education for the first time in Precious’s life. That’s hardly an example of “a white man” rescuing her from “the clutches of evil black men.”

If Ishmael Reed has such a problem with this very real issue—the clichéd story of non-whites being rescued and/or ‘domesticated’ by whites—why hasn’t he railed against other Oscar contenders The Blind Side or Avatar?

I’m not sure what Steven Spielberg’s admission that after reading The Color Purple he wanted to rescue Celie has to do with the question of racism in Precious, but it’s hardly surprising; it’s neither a white nor solely male instinct to want to rescue people who are being abused or oppressed. I felt this way when I read Bastard Out of Carolina and I’m a white woman—so was the character (her abuser was white as well). I have felt this way during every book I’ve read or movie I’ve seen depicting abused women or children. And sadly, there are many of them.

Oh, but Reed’s Steven Spielberg jag gets better:

“…while he has yet to make a movie about the Celies among his ethnic group.”

I’m assuming that by “his ethnic group” Reed is referring to Jewish people. And I can only laugh—truly, I laughed when I read this—because Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List! A movie about the Holocaust, a genocide that killed millions of “his ethnic group,” both male and female. Oy vey.

Earlier I alluded to Reed’s obsession with not-black-enough black people and asserted that he’s a sexist, so here’s some evidence: Reed refers to Paula Patton’s character as “light-skinned” and someone “whom the camera favors.” He refers to Mariah Carey’s character as “firm” and “of the same skin tone.” That he can think of no other way to describe these women (like perhaps their acting talent?) than their physicality is telling.

More on women: Reed refers to TheRoot’s female contributors, some of whom are professors, as “the types who are using the university curriculum to get even with their fathers….”

Wow. I don’t know for sure, but I would suggest based on the evidence in this article that perhaps Reed has some mommy issues he needs to work on with a therapist. Maybe they’re daddy issues, I don’t know, but he certainly seems to have a hate-on for women. How can anyone take this man seriously when he writes things like this?

Reed then goes on a tangent for a few paragraphs trouncing TheRoot some more and bringing up The Color Purple and Steven Spielberg again. It’s boring and has nothing to do with what is supposed to be his central argument. Although to be honest, I don’t know that he really has one. He purports to argue that Precious (the film and/or its marketing campaign?) is racist, but he seems to just be using that as a front so he can hate on women and light-skinned black people and fatties and queers (wait for it).

Reed condemns Precious for being “a film in which gays are superior to black male heterosexuals.”


Okay. Okay, I get you. I’m with you. We all know (don’t we?) that “gays” are worse than every other segment of the population. How dare anyone make a movie in which the “gays” are depicted as superior to the black male heterosexual abusive rapist child-molester?

But wait! There’s more!

“Next to the whites, the male who treats Precious and her dysfunctional friends with the most understanding is John John, the Gay [sic] male nurse. (Lee Daniels, the Gay [sic] ‘director’ of the film once ran a nursing business.)”



1)      Again, there are hardly any white characters in this movie.

2)      Lenny Kravitz’s character John is not gay. The movie explicitly depicts him as straight.

3)      The “light-skinned” teacher, played by Paula Patton is, however, a lesbian and her partner is a “dark-skinned” black person. Not sure how this fits into Reed’s paradigm.

4)      I don’t know why Gay is capitalized suddenly, but I like it!

5)      Lee Daniels is the director of the film. The quotation marks around “director” are Reed’s. I’m not sure why, although he seems to be implying that Daniels did not direct the film. Is it because he’s gay?

6)      I am shocked—shocked!—that a film would contain a nurse character. And a male nurse at that! Lee Daniels once apparently ran a nursing business. This is clearly a conspiracy.

But wait! There’s more (on the not-black-enough or not-the-right-kind-of-black issue)!

“In this movie Caribbean Americans are smarter than black Americans.”

Shit on a stick!! How dare they?!?! What right do Caribbean-black Americans have being in a movie anyway, but then to have the gall to appear smarter than non-Caribbean-black Americans? It’s bullshit! It’s racist! It’s a conspiracy!

At this point I can’t ascribe any factual accuracy to anything Reed says, but he claims that Oprah Winfrey has only ever had a “few titles by black male authors” as part of her book club. This may or may not be true. If it is, then perhaps the title of Reed’s screed should have been “Oprah and sexism: Why so few titles in her book club have been written by men” (I’m not putting any more creative thought into it than that). That Reed seems to be accusing Winfrey of sexism is laughable given all that he has said about women, so I’ll take a page from Cameron Bailey and just leave it there.

Now Reed launches into an extremely long ad hominem attack on Oprah Winfrey, who is an executive producer* of the movie. Reed actually quotes the writer of an unauthorized Oprah Winfrey biography, quotes a woman who attended a taping of Winfrey’s show, and contends that the “real” reason Winfrey is quitting her show is because of another unauthorized biography that isn’t even out yet. Reed’s love of the illogical, nonsensical, and unrelated ‘argument’ is here coupled with his disdain for women and overweight people: “Like her addiction to food, Oprah does well for a little while but she just can’t help herself.”

Again, what’s his argument supposed to be? The problem with responding to an article like this is that every single thing he says is ridiculous, false, and/or offensive. I’m going to skip through some of it quickly. Reed says many more absurd things, but none such that my head will explode if I don’t respond to them. Besides, they really speak for themselves.

Blah, blah, blah…some ad hominem attacks on The New York Times Magazine for liking Precious; a condemnation of the magazine for featuring Gabourey Sidibe, “the 350 pound actor in the title role,” on its cover (that’s the third reference to her weight if you’re counting); a reference to this cover story as “black exploitation;” a reference to the Times Op Ed page as the “Jim Crow Op Ed” page; a subtle conspiracy theory about the fact that Lionsgate spent money advertising in The New York Times; an ad hominem (and potentially libelous) attack on A.O. Scott; a comparison of the Oscar-winning film Monster’s Ball to porn; and a truly beyond-absurd and laughable rhetorical question: “When [Daniels] went on the set to exercise his role as ‘director’ did the white people who own the movie and provide the crew for this film call security? Hard to say.”

Mmm. Hard indeed.

Reed then starts to make what could potentially be a fair and cogent point about the lack of black voices in pop culture, art, and media, but then just can’t resist the racism and ad hominem attacks—he refers to the Times Op Ed writer Orlando Patterson as “the kind of Jamaican who has nothing but contempt for African Americans.”

Seriously, I am not making this shit up. How could anyone—anyone—read his nonsensical article and not conclude that Ishmael Reed hates black people who were born outside of the United States, hates light-skinned black people, hates women, hates overweight people, hates queers, and denigrates anyone who disagrees with him?!?!

There’s some more conspiracy theory stuff, too. Sapphire claims that Precious was a real-life person, but Reed implies that it’s not true: “Don’t you think that if such a person existed that [sic] Lionsgate wouldn’t [sic] include her in its marketing plan….” Despite your wretched grammatical construction, I do understand your rhetorical question and the answer is no—not if the real-life Precious did not want to be outed. And that’s even assuming she’s still alive. She did, after all, contract AIDS in the 1980s.

(In the Q debate Reed rehashes this, saying, “…if she were a real person, they would have brought her forth and paraded her around like a baby elephant or something.” Don’t think for a moment that this isn’t yet another anti-overweight jab.)

Hey! How about some more nonsensical ad hominem attacks? It’s been, what, two sentences since we’ve heard one? What’s that, Ishmael? An ad for Precious appeared on your AOL home page you say? Please, tell me more about AOL’s coverage of black culture and politics since it’s so closely related to the premise of your article!

“Their coverage of black culture is limited to black NFL and NBA athletes who get into trouble outside of strip clubs.”

HA! Good one!

“Sapphire says that she was a former prostitute and a victim of incest (Lee Daniels does his pity party routine during the Times’ interview)…. In 1986, she began to ‘remember things.’ (Lee Daniels also ‘remembered’ abuse by his father.)”

I doubt that any woman has ever been a prostitute or a victim of incest. But even if this ridiculous supposition were true, why on earth would she be deserving of any compassion or sympathy? And how could she possibly have gone on to be a success in life? Furthermore, we all know that people who ‘remember’ being abused as children are clearly just vengeful adults trying to punish their parents for not buying them a car when they turned 16. Life can be so cruel!

Blah, blah, blah…more stuff that has zero to do with the movie. More ad hominems. More conjecture. Actually a pretty strong case against the death penalty. Some attacks on the F word (f-f-feminists!). More attacks on Sapphire. More attacks on Sarah Siegel. More bad grammar and writing (“…whose depiction of black men is worst than those…”). More equating of Precious to Nazis and the Holocaust. (Oh, and in the Q debate Reed tells a blatant lie: “There’s a subtle eugenics message at the end of the movie about sterilizing black women.” This is just not true.)

Reed then goes on a tirade in his article personally attacking NPR’s Terry Gross for liking Precious and for allegedly being racist (though providing no evidence). This is beautiful hypocrisy; check it out:

“When whatever is bothering Ms. Gross about black men gains entry in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, maybe the editors will name it after her. Gross’s Syndrome.”

Sure! And when whatever is bothering Ishmael Reed about women, rape/incest victims, white people, light-skinned/Caribbean/Jamaican black people, overweight people, and queers gains entry in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, maybe the editors will name it after him! ISHMAELIAN-REED SYNDROME, characterized by hate-filled, balls-out bigotry!

This has been a long post, I know. Thanks for riding it out (if you did). If you feel as strongly about this issue as I do, let your opinion be known. Post comments on articles. Write to Q and any other media outlet that has Ishmael Reed on as a legitimate guest.

Most importantly, raise the level of discourse. There are real issues buried somewhere here among Reed’s trite bile. There are serious issues about black representation and about the all-too-true state of affairs for women, poor people, and minorities. It sucks that the story of Precious is about a poor, forgotten, illiterate, abused, unhealthy, teenager who has slipped through the cracks, has been chronically abused and raped, and has never been truly cared about.

It sucks, but it’s a story that is lived out again and again every day all over the world. The fact that she’s black, that her story takes place in ‘the ghetto’ in the 1980s is just the setting. The abuse of women and children, the oppression of minorities, and the damage that poverty does are all real. They’re true. They happen to people. That a disproportionate number of these people are racial and sexual minorities is also true. This fact alone is evidence of systemic societal racism and sexism; a film depicting this is not inherently racist. In fact, it may help shine a light where too long darkness has maintained the status quo.

* For accuracy’s sake, I have edited the claim that Oprah Winfrey was a “financial backer.” She is, in fact, an executive producer and I do not know if she financially backed the film.

For more:

The attacks on Precious are starting to say more about the attackers. (“… the difference between a cliché and a portrayal of genuine life will always come down to the specificity of what you’re seeing…. Several points in Reed’s essay strike me as almost perversely wrongheaded…. I think he’s talking about a different movie.”)

The controversy over Precious. (“Precious takes people who are usually only depicted as stereotypes, hated and looked down at, if looked at at all—overweight, dark-skinned Black girls and women on welfare—and shows them as they are, full humans with complexity and humanity. In this way it contributes to understanding more deeply the depths of the oppression people like them face and the impacts of those stereotypes. This is the exact opposite of minstrelsy.”)

Ishmael Reed on the Movie Precious. (“So how does Reed’s us against them binary explain the legion of black folks and black women in particular that identify with the movie’s characterization of incest and sexual abuse? Simply put, it doesn’t. That is, not unless you believe that all black folks think alike, which apparently Reed expects us—or precisely the mostly white readership of the New York Times—to believe.”)

The problem with Precious. (“How else to explain that while the film is set in 1987, no one seems outraged that so little has changed in the inner city in the more than 20 years since? Precious is a period piece that feels like a documentary.”)

She’s Not Just a Fat Aunt Jemima on a Pancake Box. (“…it sounds like Reed’s central complaint is more about the lack of other similar portrayals of non-Blacks than an ACTUAL critique of this specific movie. In fact, based on his summary of the movie in his review, I’m not even sure he’s seen the film…. In any case, who gets to decide what serves as Black ‘reality’? Ishmael Reed? Is there a review board?”)

Precious attacked in the NYTimes. (“[Ishmael Reed’s editorial] is an extremely narrow attack on a very powerful and moving piece of art that truly is not about the demonization of Black men, but a work that shines a light on the many ways in which the potential and humanity of young Black women, poor women on welfare, victims of incest and abuse, victims of the American ‘educational’ system, dark-skinnned Black girls are squandered.  As the movie puts it, they are so often viewed as only as ‘Black grease to be wiped away.'”)

Precious Ignites a Debate on the Black Narrative. (“‘Black people are able to say Precious represents some of our children, but some of our children go to Yale. Child abuse is not black,’ [Sapphire] added. ‘What do you call the man in Austria who imprisoned his daughter for years?'”)

Published in: on March 5, 2010 at 10:14 pm  Comments (20)  
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Amnesia: Right. Of course.

On the episode of This American Life entitled “How to Rest In Peace,” host Ira Glass begins the show by saying the following:

“This is one of those things that you’ve probably never heard, but as soon as somebody tells you, you’re like, ‘Right, of course.’ You know how murder figures into so much of American pop culture? On crime shows and thrillers and video games, and all kinds of stuff? Well if you knew somebody who actually got murdered, it turns out you might not be into that stuff so much.”

Right. Of course.

Rachel Howard, whose father was murdered, talks about how she can’t watch Law & Order or play Clue or go to a murder mystery dinner theatre. She makes the very obvious point that they don’t have rape mystery dinners, where people show up and have to try to discover who the rapist is. “Everybody would feel that was deeply distasteful,” she says.

Right. Of course.

And yet murder is pop-culture fodder.

In Act 3 of another episode of the show that I listened to recently entitled “The Friendly Man,” Scott Carrier sets out to discover if amnesia really exists.

After randomly asking people on the street and in the grocery store if they’d ever had amnesia, he comes up short (save the odd story of concussions or drug hazes), so he seeks out a psychologist, hoping for more insight into amnesia.

The psychologist can only tell one, anecdotal, story of amnesia, about a fellow service member during Vietnam. This is a psychologist—who can’t recount one clinical case of amnesia? A psychologist who can’t provide references to any clinical cases of amnesia? Or even recommend a book on the topic?

Excellent research skills there, Scott.

At one point Scott asks the psychologist if he had the power to flip a switch and invoke amnesia—“you won’t remember your name, you won’t remember who you are”—whether he would do it. Would he flip the switch? The psychologist laughs in response and turns the question back on Scott, who says that he would want to do it, because then he would lose his ego and he would have a clean slate. He says that is sounds attractive to him, that it would be a good thing: “I think I would be smart enough to realize that this is a gift.”

I echo the doctor’s response: “Give me a goddamned break!”

Having come up short again, Scott decides to try and induce his own amnesia. He goes to a hypnotherapist and asks if she could hypnotize him to forget everything about himself and his life. He’d like to do it for hours, or days, but she convinces him to do it for just a half an hour and to limit the things he will “forget” to just a few.

Of course the hypnosis fails; he remembers everything.

Scott seems to conclude that real amnesia is extremely rare and wonders if the reason it is so pervasive on television and in the movies is because it’s a story we want to be true. “Everybody loves the idea of a second chance,” he says, “of starting over without the burden of the past. I think that’s why amnesia is in so many movies and TV shows and romance novels—we somehow want to believe in it.”

I know that it is hard to be aware of all of the things in this world that we should be sensitive towards. It makes sense that murder should not be fun and games and entertainment, but it’s not something you really think about until it’s pointed out to you by someone like Rachel Howard.

I cringe at the thought of anyone listening to Scott Carrier’s story and coming to the conclusion that “real” amnesia does not exist. My stomach turns at the thought of anyone romanticizing amnesia, being so callous, uninformed, naïve, and ignorant as to consider it a good thing, a “clean slate,” a “second chance,” a way of “starting over,” or “a gift.”

Amnesia is not a gift. It does not clean anything. Rather, it causes indelible psychological and emotional trauma for the sufferer and their loved ones, and often life-long disability, depending on the type. As someone who has suffered the amnesia of a loved one, I will hopefully make some people say, “Right. Of course.”

First, a little about the different types of memory.

Sensory memory refers to information about a stimulus that is held in memory—in the exact form in which it was experienced—for only a few seconds until it can be further processed. For example, a visual stimulus is stored in the sensory memory as a “picture.” The brain has yet to process such information.

Short-term memory refers to memories that last for a few minutes. Unlike sensory memory, the brain has already processed short-term memories in some way. So that visual stimulus may still be seen as a picture, but will also be stored as an abstract concept.

People can generally keeping about five to nine items in their short-term memory at one time before new information bumps it out. But, short-term memory can hold information in chunks. As we know from the example of phone numbers, ten digits can easily be remembered in three small chunks.

BrainWe are capable of storing information in our short-term memories for longer periods of time through repetition. If you need to remember a phone number, you repeat it to yourself over and over again. Once you’ve written it down, or dialed it, or just forget to repeat it to yourself, it will usually fade. Repetition can also increase the probability that information will move from short-term memory into long-term memory.

Long-term memory lasts for years or longer. Everything we know about the world and about ourselves, language, etc. are all long-term memories. Long-term memory is stored, organized, and retrieved via a number of different routes and systems in the brain. For example, you may retrieve the concept of “sun” by seeing the sun, feeling its warmth, seeing or hearing the word (or the word “son”), etc.

Most types of memory appear to be stored in the cortex, with different kinds of information residing in different parts. So, a visual representation of a thing resides somewhere different from the word representation of that thing, which resides somewhere different from the concept of that thing. Different parts of the brain talk to each other constantly, which is how we can see a visual stimulus such as the sun (which resides in one area), recall the word “sun” (which resides elsewhere), and abstractly conceptualize the sun as warm and life-giving (residing elsewhere still).

Now a little about the different types of amnesia.

Just as there are different forms of memory and different ways in which memories are stored and retrieved, there are different forms of memory deficits. (I’m talking only about amnesia here, not age-related memory loss, Alzheimer’s, etc.)

Amnesia can occur because of damage to any of the brain structures that are important for memory. Damage to a specific area may cause someone to be unable to see a guitar and know the word “guitar,” but they may be able to recall that it belongs to the category of “musical instrument”, or they may retain their ability to play it.

The three main classes of amnesia are anterograde, retrograde, and psychogenic.

Anterograde amnesia is caused by damage to the hippocampus and parts of the temporal lobe. Anterograde amnesia does not cause the loss of long-term memories, but the inability to store any new memories. Retrograde amnesia is the loss of old memories. Retrograde amnesia can cause the sufferer to forget months, years, or decades of his or her life. The final class is the rarest, yet the one most seen in movies and TV shows: psychogenic amnesia, also known as fugue state, which involves temporary loss of identity. Anterograde and retrograde amnesia usually result from brain injury or disease, but psychogenic amnesia is a psychological condition caused by psychological or emotional trauma.

Anterograde amnesia results from brain injury and impairs a person’s ability to learn new information. Long-term memories of experiences or events that took place before the injury are not generally affected, but memories of events that occur after the injury are not retained; there is an inability to create memories of new facts and events. This is often referred to as declarative memory—memories of what happened to you yesterday, the name of someone you met, etc. In cases of anterograde amnesia, short-term memory is usually okay; a person can carry on a conversation, for example, but it will fade from memory in time or if he or she is distracted.

Here is something fascinating about anterograde amnesia: A sufferer can be taught a new skill, such as how to perform a specific task. The next day, the person will claim to have no memory of this task, but can often still execute it well!

Retrograde amnesia results from brain injury or trauma and impairs a person’s ability to remember events or experiences from before the injury (ranging from a few minutes to several years). Memories lost in this form of amnesia are generally never recovered, although they can come back over time, in flashes and spurts, often when a person experiences things that are associated with a specific lost memory. For example, walking down the street one grew up on, they might be able to remember their old house number.

The fugue state (psychogenic amnesia) is the rarest form of amnesia. It seldom happens that a person forgets their entire life and identity—but it does happen. Unlike how it is depicted in the movies, this is often not brought on by a conk on the head, nor is it “repaired” by another conk on the head. Deep psychological and/or emotional trauma will cause someone to enter a fugue state. While it is generally temporary, there are case studies of people never regaining their identity as it existed prior to the trauma.

The reason I just did the synopsiest of all synopses about memory and amnesia is because it is interesting to me and I hope interesting to others. But also because I am not a doctor, psychologist, neuroscientist, or even a person producing a radio story about whether or not amnesia exists, and yet I have been able to find stacks and stacks of information about it. Professionally and ethically, I think Scott Carrier dropped the ball and I hope that in the future people will actually research a topic before writing or talking about it.

But also, like Rachel Howard, I have been personally affected by amnesia, and so I don’t see it the same way most people do. It shouldn’t be a contrivance of film and television. Even a movie I love, Wall-E, had the contrived (and offensive, to me) amnesic moment at the end, with his memory being miraculously restored by a kiss. This kind of thing is something you probably never think about, just as you probably never thought about how a murder mystery dinner is just as distasteful as a rape mystery dinner would be, even though it is ubiquitous.

As I said, it’s impossible to be aware of all of the things in the world that should be treated with sensitivity, gravity, solemnity. I hope, however, that I have contributed in some small way to people realizing that amnesia, like murder, is not only real but devastating to anyone who has experienced it. Given this, perhaps some day we can stop treating it as pop-culture fodder.

Let the whining, accusations, and recriminations begin

The OscarsThe Academy Awards nominations have been announced. I’m gonna read the nominations and type out my thoughts, category by category. This should be fun. Then I’ll nose around the internet and see what people are saying about snubs. The devastation and horror about snubbing is the most fun part of Oscar nominations. Unless you happen to be the one feeling it….

Actor in a Leading Role seems fair; no real surprises. Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon, Sean Penn for Milk, Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler were all givens. I’m pleasantly surprised to see the fifth name, Richard Jenkins for The Visitor. However, if you’re going to include wonderful, understated performances, then where’s Dev Patel for Slumdog Millionaire? He did a great job and deserves a nomination, so I’ll call that a snub.

Actor in a Supporting Role will go to Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), but thanks for coming out Josh Brolin (Milk), Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road). And you know what? Ledger deserves it. This is not a posthumous honouring of someone simply because they’re dead. He legitimately gave what many believe is one of the greatest performances ever captured on film. The Dark Knight overall doesn’t deserve a best picture nod (I’m not there yet!), but his performance certainly deserves best actor. Revolutionary Road got a supporting actor nom, but not leading actor for Leonardo DiCaprio. Hmmm…Kate?

Actress in a Leading Role. Kate Winslet did get nominated (yay!), but for The Reader. It should have been Revolutionary Road. Did you see that performance? It may have been overwrought, but it was still gut-destroying. It’s what’s known as a tour de force. Maybe Ricky Gervais was right when his Extras script made Kate Winslet (playing herself) earnestly admit that the only way to get an Oscar is to do a Holocaust movie. Okay, who else? We’ve got Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married), Angelina Jolie (The Changeling), Meryl Streep (Doubt), and Melissa Leo (Frozen River). I haven’t seen Frozen River yet, but I really want to. I think this is a very interesting category. No Sally Hawkins? Maybe she’s in “supporting”—I really don’t know how they decide these things. Given that Kate Winslet has been nominated for the wrong movie (and maybe the wrong category—should it be supporting?), I’d say this one will go to Meryl Streep. Can’t argue with the Streep.

Actress in a Supporting Role. And the nominees are: Amy Adams (Doubt), Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Viola Davis (Doubt), Taraju P. Henson (Benjamin Button), and Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler). Where the freakin-ass-hell is Sally Hawkins for Happy Go-Lucky!?!?! Holy crap in a hat! That’s highway robbery. Snubbery McSnubby Snub. (See, isn’t the horrified outrage fun?) Seriously, come on! Happy Go-Lucky is one of the strangest, quirkiest films I’ve seen. It’s hard to describe, which is why it doesn’t sound appealing right now. While I was watching it I was completely irritated by the character, but it is one of the few movies I’ve seen this year that has actually stuck with me (Wall-E and Slumdog are the others). I find myself thinking about that character all the time, and I like her very much now. It was an amazing tightrope performance by Sally Hawkins. She added so many layers, and so much depth and complexity to a seemingly superficial role. She was robbed.

Sigh. Okay, now that I’ve got that over with, on to the actual nominees. I gotta be honest here—I haven’t seen Button or The Wrestler yet. I think Viola Davis was amazing in Doubt, but she really only had one scene. (Not that it’s unheard of to give this award to someone with a tiny bit of screen time.) Amy Adams was also good. Penélope Cruz was the very best thing about Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I loved her performance, but I hope the film doesn’t get a best picture nom. Without Kate Winslet (or Sally Hawkins!!!) in this category, it could really go to anyone.

Animated Feature is a lock for Wall-E, but thanks for playing Bolt and Kung Fu Panda. I liked Kung Fu Panda (“noodles, don’t noodles”), but Wall-E is one of the—if not the—best films of the year! Or many years! I have been heard to say that anyone who didn’t like Wall-E doesn’t have a heart, or has a cold, cold heart. And while I say that in jest, I really don’t understand how anyone could not like this movie. It’s a beautiful, sad, heart-warming, mournful, funny love story. It’s a character movie. People hear “love story” and “character film” and say, “It’s a cartoon!” But trust me. And every film critic on the planet. I so hope that by the time I get down to Best Picture, Wall-E will be listed there. But in my heart of hearts I know it won’t be because it’s here, in “animated.” Sigh again.

Skipping the boring categories…la la la….

Directing. David Fincher for Button (haven’t seen it), Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon (kind of requisite), Gus Van Sant for Milk (nice!), Stephen Daldry for The Reader (What!?! Wrong film again!), and Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (yaaaay!). I think Sam Mendes should have gotten a nomination for Revolutionary Road. I guess this means it won’t be in Best Picture either. Really, is this a case of who campaigns the best? I don’t think anyone would claim that The Reader is one of the best films of the year. It wasn’t even critically acclaimed—it got 60% on Rotten Tomatoes and 58 on Metacritic. And what about Andrew Stanton for Wall-E? That movie is all about the direction since there’s very little dialogue throughout a good portion of it. At any rate, I hope this one goes to Danny Boyle or Gus Van Sant.

I’m gonna skip Documentary for now because I’ve only seen one of the nominations (Encounters At the End of the World). I love documentaries, though, and will make it a goal to see as many as I can before the awards. Ditto for Foreign Language.

Score should go to Slumdog Millionaire—the only score from any film I saw this year that really made me take notice and excited me. No Bruce Springsteen for best song (“The Wrestler”)? I don’t know, but that seems like a snub. From what I’ve heard it’s a pretty modest and pat Springsteen film song, but surely it has to be better than the Peter Gabriel song from Wall-E?!?

Best Picture! Hmmm. Well, I can’t say I’m surprised, based on the other nominations. Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Reader. Again, I say it should have been Revolutionary Road and not The Reader, but that line’s getting worn. I can imagine some people saying that The Dark Knight is a snub (maybe for director, too), but I think it’s fine to be left out. It was simply a really good action movie (the Academy doesn’t tend to go for action movies), but the film wasn’t amazing. Maybe we’re just so used to action movies sucking that when one is actually good people start chanting Oscar, Oscar! Also, I think Heath Ledger’s definitely Oscar-worthy performance is getting all mixed up with the movie itself. Slumdog Millionaire better win this category. And I will never get over Wall-E not being nominated for best film. Just because it’s animated doesn’t mean it has to be in the “animated” category! Right?

And now the writing categories. For Adapted Screenplay there’s Benjamin Button, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire. That’s a tough category. I can’t predict a winner. I’d be happy if it went to Doubt or Slumdog. I’d be fine with it going to one of the other three.

Original Screenplay nominees are Frozen River, Happy Go-Lucky, In Bruges, Milk, and Wall-E. FINALLY A NOMINATION FOR HAPPY GO-LUCKY! I don’t know if it’ll win, but I want it to just because Sally Hawkins got so beyond snubbed. But I think Milk could (and also deserves) to win. Wall-E is an amazing, brilliant movie, but I don’t know about “screenplay.” So much of that movie is about the direction and the animation. I think it should have gotten a best director nod. And where is Revolutionary Road? Again, absent.

I’ve just cruised the “comments” section on a bunch of different articles about the nominations, and it seems the biggest outrage, in no particular order, is for Kate Winslet not being nominated for Revolutionary Road (and that film’s general snubbing), The Dark Knight and Wall-E not being nominated for best picture (can’t agree with the first one, but Yes! to the second), and Sally Hawkins not being nominated (Could not agree more. I share the outrage. I’m gonna give her my own award.).

There you go. Another year of snubbingly fun Oscar nominations. I think the awards will be kind of boring this year, unless Slumdog Millionaire pulls off a clean sweep. I think people could really get excited about that.

Please note: I am not a film critic; I am just a pop-culture junkie.