Critics Speak Out On The Movie 'Precious'

The movie Precious, which is based on the novel Push by Sapphire, tells the story of a 16-year-old black girl living in Harlem during the Reagan Years. But her impassive face and huge girth are no mask for the pain she is carrying. Host Michel Martin talks with Teresa Wiltz, senior culture writer, and Jada Smith, also a writer with theRoot.com. Both have recently penned stories about the film Precious and talk to Michel about the new movie and the conversations it is sparking around several social issues.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Brilliant, brutal, overwhelming, a con job, those are all words that are being used to describe the new film �Precious,� which is based on the novel �Push� by Sapphire. It tells the story of a 16-year-old black girl living in Harlem in the Reagan years, whose impassive face and huge girth are no mask for the pain she is carrying - the pain of unrelenting physical and sexual abuse at the hands of both parents. But somehow she finds a way to survive.

The film produced by entertainment superstars Oprah and Tyler Perry and produced and directed by Lee Daniels, who also produced such provocative films as �Monsters Ball� and �The Woodsman,� has already scooped up awards at various film festivals and been touted as Oscar material. But it has also opened up some difficult conversations about race and poverty, about sexual abuse, and about skin color, even about how black filmmakers portray dark-skinned people.

In a few minutes, we'll talk about just how real �Precious� is. How real her story is. We'll talk to a human rights activist who advocates for incarcerated, women many of whom have been victims of exactly the kind of abuse depicted in the film. But first, we're going to talk about some of the cultural conversations being sparked by �Precious.� The online magazine the Root has published a number of pieces related to the film and two of the writers are with us now.

Teresa Wiltz is the Roots' senior culture writer and she's also serving as interim managing editor. She's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio along with Jada Smith who is a writer at the Root. Welcome ladies, thank you for joining us.

Ms. JADA SMITH (Writer, The Root): Thank you.

Ms. TERESA WILTZ (Senior Culture Writer, The Root): Thank you.

MARTIN: Teresa, as I mentioned, the Root has published a number of pieces about this film. Why do you think there's so much interest in it? Is it just because it's a big Hollywood roll out with a lot of big stars? Or is it something else about it that you think makes people want to talk about it.

Ms. WILTZ: I think both. There has been an enormous amount of buzz about this. I mean it's got the Oprah stamp and the Tyler Perry stamp. But it's really this little art movie and, you know, we don't normally see stories about girls such as Precious.

MARTIN: What did you think of this film? I mean, you were - you not only sort of edited the package and brought pieces into the package, you kind of started the dialogue and encouraged the dialogue about the film, but you also wrote a piece about the film. So�

Ms. WILTZ: Right, I did review it. I really, I liked it.

MARTIN: What did you think of it?

Ms. WILTZ: I mean I found it to be a work of art, frankly. I mean, I just thought it was lyrically beautiful to watch. But it wasn't just beautiful to watch. I mean, there was this emotional resonance to it. He has a lot of, you know, little tricks, filmy tricks. We see Precious' longings come to life as she's looking through a photo album. And the pictures are talking back at her and they're reassuring her and they're cooing to her. Where she looks in the mirror and fixes her hair, and suddenly she sees this pretty white girl with blond hair. So I loved that it just brought us into her interior life. I think it's hard to do that.

MARTIN: Everyone did not love the film. Jada, you took issue with one specific aspect of the film. And your piece is entitled �Does Hollywood Still Have A Brown Paper Bag Test?� What did you mean by that?

Ms. SMITH: I meant the casting. All of the negative people in Precious' life - her mother, her father, even herself because she has a poor self-image. She has poor self-esteem, are all dark skinned and all of the positive people in her life are all light skinned, the people who uplift her and who help her overcome her issues. The nurse played by Lenny Kravitz, the social worker played by Mariah Carey and her teacher. In the book, the teacher�

Ms. WILTZ: The teacher Ms. Laine�

MARTIN: Who's played by Paula Patton in the film.

Ms. SMITH: Mm-hmm, she has (unintelligible) brown skinned. And in the movie, she is light skinned, Paula Patton. And even in Black Hollywood, it's directed by a black director and produced by Oprah and Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels. That con is as far as light people are good, dark people are bad is still portrayed. Maybe it was overt, maybe it was covert, I don't know, but I definitely noticed it.

MARTIN: One thing that some people are surprised by is that there isn't more criticism of the portrayal of a black family in film. And one of the pieces that the Root printed also sort of reflects on the fact that 20 years ago when �The Color Purple,� which is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker was made into a film, there was tremendous criticism about the portrayal of black men which is similar. I mean it was set in a different context. It was rural, but the themes of incest were there, of this overwhelming brutality�

Ms. SMITH: Right.

MARTIN: �was there and many people said, why do we need to see this? And it's interesting that Sapphire, the author, does not use her real name in her work did not permit this novel to be made into a film for a very long time. Many people asked for the film rights. She refused to give them. She was asked by my colleague Michele Norris on the program ALL THINGS CONSIDERED about that. And she was asking her why she finally did agree to turn it into a film and here it is.

SAPPHIRE (Author, �Push�): Well, now in 2009, we have tremendous range of black families in the media, from the Cosbys to the Obamas. So now, I think, we are safe enough and secure enough to show this disease situation with the hope that we can see it as something that needs to be healed as opposed to something that we need to hide from the public's view.

MARTIN: Teresa, I want to ask you about that. Do you think that's true?

Ms. WILTZ: Well, I think, yes, I do think that's true. I think that, you know, the fact that we have the Obamas in the White House is kind of a powerful counterpoint to any kind of negative depictions that you might see in the media. I personally still get very frustrated by what I see in Hollywood. I feel like, you know, I go to the movies with my husband and we walk away feeling like we've just been sitting for two hours watching white people's lives. So I still feel that there's a big dearth of experiences.

But compared to what was out there in 1984, when �The Color Purple� came out, it's very different.

MARTIN: But are some of your readers saying, well, see this is what I said all along. These people do have all these problems? And�

Ms. WILTZ: Definitely, I mean, you definitely have, you know, people who are going to look at this as this is some - and this is one thing I've taken issues with Oprah when she says, we're all Precious, because I feel that it denies Precious specificity of her own story. So, you know, that she's a stand in for all black people. And there are going to be people, and we've had people on the site who think this is just a stand-in for black dysfunction and, you know, proof positive of that.

So, and that's always I think the push with black art. It's like can you be authentic or do you have to be presenting the varnished prefabricated image of everything, (unintelligible) image of everything being wonderful, which I think is limiting. We need to have many, many, many stories about black lives and this is just one story. And it's one story that to me is told very beautifully and clearly. We're hungry for this because it's getting this tremendous amount of reaction.

MARTIN: Teresa Wiltz is the Roots' senior culture writer. She's also serving as interim managing editor. Jada Smith is a writer for the Root. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Ladies, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. WILTZ: Thank you.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want to read the pieces that we have been talking about as well as a number of others about �Precious,� please go to our Web site, that's npr.org, click on programs and then TELL ME MORE.

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