MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Finally, like many of you, I managed to get to the movies during my time off, and I forced myself to go and see "Precious," the much-publicized film based on the novel "Push." "Push" was written by a novelist who prefers to be known only as Sapphire. And it was one of the books that made a splash in certain circles when first appeared, passed from hand-to-hand like one of those underground newspapers behind the Iron Curtain.
I had read the book, so I knew what to expect, and what I expected was to be depressed. It's a very disturbing story about an obese black girl living in Harlem during the Reagan years who's pretty much used as a sex slave by her father and a punching bag by her mother. And the girl is illiterate, and she's pregnant for the second time by - guess who? Her slimy father. I told you it was depressing, even though there was a redemption of sorts when Precious, with the help of a special teacher and friends, pushes herself to learn to read. Even the author wasn't sure her book should be made into a movie because, as she told my colleague Michele Norris, she thought attaching visual imagery to such a dire story might be just too much.
She said she changed her mind when she saw another film made by Lee Daniels, who directed the movie, but also she said Barack Obama's campaign success factored into her decision. She looked images of black people living all kinds of ways and doing all kinds of things were now available to the world in a way that they had not been when she first wrote the book. Thus, she felt the story could be seen for what it was, the story of some girls, especially some black girls, but not of all black people.
Can I just tell you? I'm no movie critic, but I think everything that has been said about the film is true. It is poverty porn, and it does invite you to gaze upon horror for a time so you can feel so much better about your own problems. It does allow you to see its sick family dynamic as a black problem when anybody who works with abused kids and women can tell you it most certainly is not.
And yet, the film is riveting and powerful because it's true. We see this movie every day - at least I do. And it makes you say to yourself: Now that I've seen it, what am I going to do about it? And it also made me think about the Obamas, oddly enough, especially, Michelle Obama and those too famous and too-much-discussed biceps of hers, and her lovely clothes, and her regal but warm bearing.
And I know there's some people wonder why we care - why we care what she wears and how she works out and when. There are those who will question why she needs a one-of-a-kind, handmade gown for the administration's first state dinner, why indeed there needs to be such lavish entertaining at a time when so many people are out of work and out of their homes and scared of about what the future will bring. And the answer - to me, at least - is that that image was exactly what Sapphire was talking about. It's one image that the many Preciouses of the world need.
They need to see a woman like Michelle Obama who is strong and healthy and, if I may say, beautiful. They need to know that being healthy, fulfilled and loved is not a fantasy in their heads but a reality within reach, that being black need not be synonymous with dysfunction and sorrow.
It's been surprising to me how many other people need to get that message, too. The amount of sick vitriol directed at the Obamas, even on well-respected political blogs, has shocked even me. And while I understand why the owners of these sites don't feel a need to police such venom, they might do well to think less about letting thoughtless racists rant and more about what the overlooked and unloved may need to get by, someone to look up to - dare I say it - someone to make them feel they are, indeed, precious.
And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.