OPINION: What “Precious” Tells Us About Images Of Blackness

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Image is everything.

Whoever said that was apparently right, especially in the Los Angeles area, home of the movie industry, the recent Academy Awards and the annual Wadsworth Elementary School Black History Month parade. All have been in the news lately highlighting the continuing controversy over representations of blackness. The controversy is centered on one thing — image.

While billions of eyes were focused on Tinsel Town for Hollywood’s biggest night, a debate raged in the black community and beyond on Precious, the big-screen adaptation of the gritty and popular novel, Push, by Sapphire. Everyone seems to have a visceral reaction to the film and the African American images it portrays. NewsOne.com hosted an online debate between NYU film professor Sheril D. Antonio and social critic Stanley Crouch. Even former First Lady Barbara Bush hosted a special showing and strongly endorsed the movie in Newsweek.

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Days before the award show, three white teachers were suspended for having several students carry pictures of such “questionable” African American figures as O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul in the school’s Black History Month parade. These controversial personalities were added to the celebration by three of the school’s teachers and were widely viewed as racially insensitive acts, and a slap at the African American community.

For some, so was the mostly white Academy’s celebration of Precious. Numerous critics, like Professor Antonio, felt the movie –while well done– contained numerous and problematic images including the fact that the more benevolent roles in the movie were played by black people with lighter complexions. Once again, African Americans were left to wonder if the Academy was recognizing the film for its merits or if they were further promoting negative images of African Americans by rewarding us for deviant roles, as some people said they’d done previously with Training Day and Monster’s Ball.

Whatever we believe, the votes are now in and folks have made their choice. The three teachers were suspended and Precious won two Oscars. And I can live with these developments as long as African Americans continue to actively monitor, speak out and hold folks accountable for the images of our community in the mass media – and if they serve as an impetus for further diversifying media images of black people.

The Black experience is multi-faceted.  We may have people like Precious in our community, but we also have people like Ursula Burns, the black woman who just assumed the position of Chief Executive Officer of Xerox Corporation.

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It is well past time for us as a community to insist that media images of black people reflect the richness and variety of our experience.

Stephanie Robinson is President and CEO of The Jamestown Project, a national think tank focused on democracy. She is an author, a Lecturer on Law at the Harvard Law School and former Chief Counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Stephanie reaches 8 to 10 million listeners each week as political commentator for the popular radio venue, The Tom Joyner Morning Show. Check her out at stephanierobinsonspeaks.com. Visit her online at www.StephanieRobinsonSpeaks.com

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