Black people have long shared a fraught relationship with the Academy Awards. Ever since our first win–Hattie McDaniels’ 1939 Best Supporting Actress victory for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With The Wind”–many of us have wondered if being rewarded by the white Hollywood establishment for playing negative or stereotypical roles is really anything to celebrate. The same question nagged at us when Denzel Washington won the Best Actor trophy for his turn as a crooked cop in “Training Day” rather than his portrayal of Malcolm X, and when Halle Berry was named Best Actress for her work in what some considered a stereotypically hypersexualized Black female role.
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This year, with “Precious” nominated for more Oscars than any other Black film in history, we’re compelled to ask again: Just what is the Academy looking to praise us for? Derided by some critics as “poverty porn,” “Precious” tells the story of a morbidly obese, illiterate incest victim living in Harlem with her physically and sexually abusive welfare queen of a mother. Not a whole lot of positivity there.
But uncomfortable though it may be, “Precious” does portray a slice of American life that can plausibly find some counterpart in reality. The same could be said of “Training Day” or “Monster’s Ball.” The problem that we as a people often run into when considering forms of artistic expression is that it isn’t enough for Black film or television characters to be merely plausible or real: We want them to be heroes.
Understandably so. There’s no shortage of negative portrayals of Black people and Black life in the media and entertainment, and to deny that the skewed picture they paint is damaging would be dishonest. But the remedy isn’t to suppress negative images–the remedy is balance. We should redirect our energies toward creating and elevating positive Black films and characters rather than condemning films like “Precious” for depicting us in a poor light. Because, let’s face it, there really are some Black mothers who abuse their children as mercilessly as Mo’Nique’s Mary did Precious. There also really are (or were) Italian mafiosos like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, and white serial killers like Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wuornos. Not only do morally reprehensible people of all races exist, they make for compelling, complex, and layered characters. Such characters provide an opportunity for just the type of breathtaking displays of acting talent that Mo’Nique turned in for “Precious.”
So yes, Black folks should celebrate if “Precious” wins any of the six Oscars it’s nominated for. For us, the film itself may not have been flattering, but it was as real and as worthy a display of talent as any other less-than-positive work to come before it. Amid the controversy surrounding the Academy’s lauding of “Precious,” we must remember: the villains in our community are as real as the heroes, and they can allow for acting roles as worthy–or more–as so much positivity.
The best choice we can make, then, is not to suppress or deride films like “Precious,” but simply to keep them in perspective.