MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're going to talk about two films playing in theaters right now that speak to issues of race and poverty, and what it takes to achieve. In a few minutes, we'll talk about �The Blind Side.� It's a big hit, but some are asking if the story of a homeless black teen who's taken in by an affluent white family is popular because it's so good or because it plays to stereotypes. We'll have that conversation a little later.
But first, an unlikely champion has emerged for another new film, a gritty take on urban life. The movie is �Precious,� based on the novel �Push,� by Sapphire. The subject matter is so disturbing - it's about a young black girl who is the victim of horrific abuse by both parents, but somehow finds the strength to escape - that even the author of the novel on which it is based was not sure it should have been made into a film. But now that it has been, she, along with critics around the world, are praising it.
And now, another voice has joined the chorus of praise. Former first lady Barbara Bush says the film is a stirring message about the power of literacy. And she feels so strongly about it, she wrote a piece about it for Newsweek. And she is with us now. Welcome, it is very good to talk to you. Thank you for speaking with us.
Ms. BARBARA BUSH: Thank you very, very much. You know, I should tell you, I had one reservation about the movie, and I think it's too bad.
MARTIN: Well, I'd like to hear it.
Ms. BUSH: Well, I think it stereotyped Precious as a black. This could have been anybody, anyplace in America. Sad to say, children are abused. It could have been white, brown, yellow, whatever - whatever, and I hate that because I think it isn't just blacks, it's everybody.
MARTIN: So, your concern is that some might view this as a black problem and not as an American problem�
Ms. BUSH: That's right. It is an American problem.
MARTIN: How did you hear about this film? I understand that you hosted a screening in Houston.
Ms. BUSH: We did. And I did sort of set the pace by saying they're going to see things in this movie that you never want to see, and you're going to hear things that you never want to hear. But the movie is so strong and so honest - I covered my eyes several times. I want to back now, and I want to see it again.
MARTIN: How did you hear about it? Did you know someone who is connected to it?
Ms. BUSH: The film people said, you know, we'd love to let you have it. We've -showed other movies, George and I, to friends and family, and good movies, like this movie. And then some people said, don't do that; it's too tough and too painful. But I'm so glad I did. And everybody who saw it, including my husband, who said I will go with you but I won't stay because I'm tired, he never moved. And nobody at that movie moved. I thought it was amazing.
MARTIN: One of the reasons that you liked it is that you have been, for years, a champion of literacy and working to promote literacy. And I just want to play a short clip from the film for people who have not seen it because a lot of attention has been focused on just the graphic nature of the abuse that the character Precious suffers. But she finds a way out. And one of the ways she finds a way out of her situation is by learning to read. And I just want to play a short clip from the film; here it is.
(Soundbite of movie, "Precious")
Ms. GABOUREY GABBY SIDIBE (Actor): (as Clareece Precious Jones) My name Clareece Precious Jones. I go by Precious. I live in Harlem. I like yellow, and I had problems at my other school. So, I come here.
MARTIN: You wrote in a piece for Newsweek that, there are kids like Precious everywhere. Every day we walk by them, young boys and girls whose home lives are dark secrets. They are often abused or neglected, and seldom read to or given homework help. Without the skills they need to lead a productive life, the chances are good that they will continue the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. Now, as we said, we - you've been working on this for years. Do you sometimes feel that people haven't been listening to you?
Ms. BUSH: I'm sure they haven't been listening. Some have, though. I mean, we've given to well over 700 different family literacy programs. And I think - we hear testimonies all the time of real-life people whose lives have changed because they've been taught to read. You know, we feel in our foundation that if you teach the mother and the child together, that that's very effective, and it's really proven so.
One time, in Kentucky, I visited with some ladies who were learning to read while their children were being taught downstairs. And then they would get together and teach - read to their children. Well, about four years later, I went back. And by chance the ladies, they all got jobs, they were supportive of each other. This was especially dear to me.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the former first lady Barbara Bush. She is a fan of the new film �Precious.� She says everybody should go see it.
You know, in recent years, we've had a number of celebrities disclose that they got quite far in life before they were - they actually learned to read. There is a singer named Fantasia Barrino, who made a big splash on �American Idol.� She disclosed that she actually was functionally illiterate. There is a CBS correspondent named Byron Pitts, who you probably have seen, who disclosed that he got quite far in school before he and his family realized he actually could not read. And I just wonder: Why is that, in a country like this, where we have universal access to education, free public education - unlike some countries -and have for generations. Why is it that we still have people who can't read?
Ms. BUSH: Well, I think it has a lot to do with the breakup of the American family, truthfully. And I think we're just too busy to pay attention to our children sometimes. You know, one of the great joys in life is sitting with your arm around your child - your twins, for instance - and reading together. I think that's great. But some people are too busy.
MARTIN: Well, some might say that's kind of a way of saying that a lot of women are at work now, and that's why they're not reading with their kids. Do you think that's it?
Ms. BUSH: Well, I understand that. You know, if you work hard all day long and you're really, really tired, you know, maybe you should forget the dishes one night, or something. I understand that. And I think a lot of American women have to work or want to work. And they should. Some people weren't meant to stay home all the time. But having said that, you got to make an extra effort, and there are lot of things you can do as a civilian - like you can mentor a child.
You know, our son Jeb mentored a child for eight years, one day a week, because he said, you know, somebody needs to know that child's name and needs to know whether he's doing his homework and how he is doing. And a lot of people mentored after Jeb did that. But there are just all sorts of things. You can volunteer in a public school. There are adult literacy programs, soup kitchens, homeless shelters. All of those things can help.
MARTIN: You say in your piece that you're encouraging people to go see �Precious.� You say you haven't been as energized as - about the issue as you have been for years since you saw this film. And then you're saying, go see the movie, and then ask yourself how you can help. Why - how did the film energize you? What did it - what thoughts did it make you think that you maybe hadn't been thinking before?
Ms. BUSH: Well, I was just as moved as George Bush was. And I was really shocked that nobody moved once in that whole movie because the girl went through so much more than anybody could believe. And incidentally, the actresses and the actors were so unbelievably real and true. And - have you seen it?
MARTIN: I sure have, sure.
Ms. BUSH: Well, then you know why I was energized.
Ms. BUSH: Great movie. Now, were you offended by the fact that we stereotyped -we didn't, they did - her as a black girl?
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that you ask because I actually wrote a piece about this for my commentary, and I reacted, I think, much as you did. On the one hand, I said, you know, it's a shame that this film kind of invites you to see this as a problem just affecting African-Americans or black people - but that it's true. It is still true that people are experiencing this. And if this is a film that makes you look at the problem, it makes you face the suffering that some people are experiencing, then it's served its purpose. It's interesting - I think I reacted very similarly to the way that that you did.
Ms. BUSH: But you know, we see movies about abused children, you know, any color, and you don't get the same feeling. �Precious� is beautifully done. You know, when you see something so horrible you can't believe it, the director somehow or other takes you quickly out of that and into something else. So, her daydreams are beautiful, I think.
MARTIN: They were - well, I think you kind of needed that, too, as a little bit of relief from what�
Ms. BUSH: You did.
MARTIN: �you were experiencing in the film. Well, it's been great talking to you again. I really appreciate that. I appreciate that. Can I ask you one thing, though, that's a little bit�
Ms. BUSH: Sure.
MARTIN: �sensitive. You remember around the time of Katrina, back in '05, in 2005?
Ms. BUSH: I sure do.
MARTIN: And, you know, you made a comment about people wanting to stay in Houston that hurt a lot of people's feelings. I don't know - if I'm sure you're aware of that. Can I ask you what you were thinking about, what you were saying? You were saying that you thought that some people would want to stay in Houston, and that was a little scary.
Ms. BUSH: That's because I thought Houston was doing such a good job. And I think people really wanted to have their children go to school here. We're a very good city, and I don't quite know what people thought I meant, but anyway, that's what I meant.
MARTIN: I have to say I was in Houston after Katrina, and you're right, there was a remarkable outpouring of support for people.
Ms. BUSH: Wasn't it unbelievable?
MARTIN: I was - it was an amazing thing to see. I was actually in the parking lot when the first evacuees arrived, and there were people there to greet them with signs and food, with everything. I mean, I was there. So I can attest to this with my own eyes. Well, before I let you go, can I just - how are you doing?
Ms. BUSH: I'm great, thank you. I feel like sort of an 84-year-old, a little overweight, very happy. I love my family. I love my city. I adore my husband, and that's about it.
MARTIN: Well, you sound great.
Ms. BUSH: Thank you.
MARTIN: Barbara Bush is the honorary chair and president of the Barbara Bush Foundation. She was first lady of the United States from 1989 to 1993. Mrs. Bush, thank you so much, and happy holidays.
Ms. BUSH: Thank you.