I wring my hands. The autumn 2009 releases of two films, Precious and The Blind Side, have brought a new focus to the everyday angst of the Black Community largely writ. My own focus is no more and definitely no less authentic than any other. (Thanks to Quintard Taylor's take on authenticity of the African-American Experience in the West for "permission" to feel this way.) But it's notable that my view has remained remarkably unchanged. I've read, skimmed, listened to, and yes, fled from exegeses great and small in mainstream media, blogosphere, and everyday phone calls but I haven't budged. Add to this the fact that I'm not in the target audience for either film and-- still I wring my hands and fret about both.
A copy of Sapphire's Push (the inspiration for Precious) has been on my "black-oriented fiction goes here, sort of" shelf for several years. I have glanced sidelong at it periodically. I have riffled the pages and read a paragraph here or there. I have, over time, reached left and right for Michel Maxwell Philip's Emmanuel Appadocca (left) and Susan Straight's Blacker than a Thousand Midnights (right).
In a fit of pique a few days ago, I started and finished Percival Everett's Erasure (2001) as a further stopgap against coming to terms with the current releases. (As an aside, its themes were too troubling and close to home to cure my traditional end-of-semester insomnia. Professor Everett of USC is an African-American male in West Coast academia, a role model I've never met, so his words stared accusingly up at me even as I lost sleep reading them.) Erasure, which contains a "novel-within-a-novel" parody of the gritty, urban, street-talk genre, is about as close as I will probably come to reading Push, and you can make a case that it's not very close at all, and in a way is even set up in opposition and response to works such as Sapphire's.
If I probably won't go beyond skimming her book, will I see the movie? After all, I'm never going to read Ben-Hur, but that didn't stop me from finally watching the film version. (All that Biblical retelling for one dang chariot race.) With film, I never say never except for Gone with the Wind, which I've fallen asleep in twice and can safely say I've abandoned. GWTW is infused deeply enough in our collective culture that it rates its own acronym, and I'm more than satisfied with brief clips, famous quotations, and satire. (My current favorite is here paraphrased from its original on a summer 2009 blog I don't normally frequent, seventy years after GWTW's release: "I don't know nothin' 'bout babyin' no birthers!")
Yet, I doubt that I will see Precious in spite of my friends at 3blackchicks.com exhorting all to do so. Eventually I must admit it's for the same reason I have not read the book cover to cover. It's the subject matter and the setting. Not only don't I want to live there, I don't want to visit.
As to The Blind Side, at first glance I cared not a whit that it was "based on a true story." From the poster alone, I was sure it must join the pantheon of movies in the sub-genre known as "ostensibly about black people but really about a white person saving black people." From several media interviews (e.g. with lead Sandra Bullock) and reviews, this early guess at classification was both justified and verified.
The reality check for me was a Thanksgiving Day conversation with an East Coast friend of several decades. When it's my turn to call, I endeavor to catch him in mid-bite during Thanksgiving dinner or in the lobby area of whatever loud restaurant he has gone to with his family to escape the traditional Pilgrim meme. This year, he was in the atrium of an Embassy Suites, plenty of background noise and not a turkey in sight. After the usual amenities, he noted that he'd already been dragged to The Blind Side by someone who'd gotten the wrong impression of what it was about, and they got up and left about three-quarters of the way through. I tut-tutted sympathetically over the phone, but he knows well that I was smirking as only as an escapee of such an excursion can smirk.
With The Blind Side, the decision to skip is much easier than with the former film, as there is no potential for guilt. No request to explain will come from any subset of the African-American community, not even the most bougie, and no external request need be honored. No black woman will give me the side eye over this or wonder if the little feminism I claim is real. No black man or woman will suggest that a Sandra Bullock movie is absolutely a must-see for its own sake. And there are plenty of candidates over the decades if I need two hours of "feel-good" about reaching across the American racial chasm for the betterment of the downtrodden.
I read, skim, and listen to the conversations about both films and wonder what's different this time. This time. Is there an Obama factor? In The Blind Side, I sense a reaffirmation for the conservative-minded that a certain flavor of charity is still needed: they can still fulfill the old roles, and black souls would be lost without their intervention. This is easy to claim from a minority perspective in anything-but-post-racial 2009. But the hype is all in the language of timeless, standard studio fare and it does not need to be filtered through the prism of mainstream (white) reaction to a black president. It may feel different in today's environment with today's expectations, but the film could have been made anytime since 1965 and found a home on the American screen.
In Precious, I am led to believe there is something new in the portrayal of the protagonist's self-awareness (not common in African-Americans in film). I realize that I picked this much up from briefly skimming Push, to Sapphire's credit, as well as from at least one blog discussion of the movie. If this aspect has made it to the screen, good for the filmmakers. The remaining argument, I think, is about the filmmakers' intent. Were they just about the money, as Ishmael Reed (for one) has suggested? If so, is their vision true in spite of this?