Posts Tagged ‘Precious’
I always watch the Oscars with a critical eye. It signals to me a kind of subterranean commentary about race and gender (always interconnected and complex). It reflects back to us what stories and actors have been valued—a cultural state of the union, one might say. I learned at an early age that films are a powerful medium that communicate social norms and expectations, ideology and privilege. By the time I was ten, I was well-schooled in raising critical questions about the nature of images about race and gender that were presented before me for blind acceptance. As an adult, I’m still critical and usually not thrilled with most of the main fare of Hollywood offerings of female and/or people of color characters.
I haven’t watched the Oscars since 2006. At that time, I was eagerly rooting for Helen Mirren (as Best Actress for The Queen) and Forest Whittaker (as Best Actor for The King of Scotland) to win which they did. I remember that my shouts of enthusiasm, when their names were called, caught the attention of my neighbors that were at the small party gathered. There were a few other women there but I was the only African American person in attendance. They may or may not have shared my excitement for this moment. Helen Mirren is one of the smartest and substantive leading women. I have been smitten with her work since seeing her in The Comfort of Strangers. She seems to be rewriting the rules for older actresses with her sexiness, intensity and daring. I love Whittaker’s range and have been following his career closely since Ghost Dog. And, he’s devoted to Kundalini yoga which is pretty cool. Both of their wins felt significant.
There were some big firsts last night: Kathryn Bigelow won for Best Director and Best Picture (The Hurt Locker). I still have a clipping from Elle Magazine that did a feature on her in the early 1990s. Although I probably will never direct a film, her visibility and work as a director inspired me as a creative person and as a woman to what’s possible. I hope that her win will translate into more and varied doors being opened for women directors.
While, I am also thrilled that Monique won for best supporting actress (the fourth African American to win) and Geoffrey Fletcher breaks new ground for winning an Oscar for Best Writing (Adapted screenplay) for Precious, I have to say that I am a bit underwhelmed at the representation offered up to us on Oscar night.
Having not watched the awards for four years, I don’t think I’ve missed that much from what I saw during the awards. It has gotten a bit better from when I was a teenager when it was a rare occurrence that people of color were nominated for anything at all. Now, it seems there is at least one African American actor nominated in a major role during every Oscar cycle. And, this year there was an African American nominated in several categories (six, I think out of almost 20 awards—an avalanche).
Although I’m completely underwhelmed by Hollywood, this does not mean that I don’t acknowledge that there has been that thing called ‘progress’ moving at a glacial rate. Progress measured by the growing number of African American directors including the Hudlin Brothers, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Tyler Perry. And, of course, we can measure progress in the kinds of films that more African American actors are cast in –a broader array of both supporting and lead roles (still very slim, however, for actresses of color). I guess after watching the Academy Awards (almost 4 hours), I have to ask myself: Is this is as good as it gets for Hollywood and diversity? I’m wondering why moviemaking still hasn’t caught up to the reality of our American communities. Where are all the richly textured films about Caribbean Americans, Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, etc? I’ve talked about African American actors but where are the actors of various racial and ethnic backgrounds in Hollywood films? And, what about behind the scenes? For such a talented and creative community, I’ve come to expect very little from Hollywood as a whole and have been rarely surprised.
I know there are many who will say that this was a great year for African Americans in film and who will say just wait—there will be more. OK, but does that mean I should drop into the Oscars in 2 or 10 years? Just how long will it take for things to change demonstrably, I wonder?
Pesky questions that roll around in my head from time to time: I lived through the glut of 1980s black/white buddy movies (in sports and police dramas-e.g. Lethal Weapon, etc) and am sick to death of this liberal equality male bonding formula. Will Hollywood ever move beyond this formula (besides the Rush Hour movies)?
Can we tell African American and white women’s stories outside of the caring black maid (or nurse), caring white woman/child/mistress of the house formula (i.e. Clara’s Heart, The Secret Life of Bees)?
Where are the African American geek films?
Can we see more female directed movies in all genres?
Where is all that ‘untraditional casting’ in films that the civil rights movement fought for so many years ago? Why do we still have almost exclusively white casts in so many major Hollywood films (even in fantasy and science fiction genres)?
There are few times that I get down about living in a small town in North Carolina, but this weekend is one of them. I have been excited about the film debut of Precious for weeks. I thought I was going to see the film and do a bit of film analysis on the blog, since I have read and taught PUSH by Sapphire (the powerful novel that that film is based on), for years. But, alas it is not opening anywhere in the Raleigh/Durham area until Nov 20! So I can’t write about the film. I can, however, share a bit about how Sapphire’s coming into her own as a writer at 40, along with other writers and activists, who started their journeys later in life, have been an inspiration to me.
Two weekends ago, I was watching MILK, the incredible story of the gay activist Harvey Milk. Early in the film, he picks up a man who will become his long term lover. At this time Harvey Milk is a closeted gay man. Right after the clock strikes on his 40th birthday, he says to his lover plaintively, “I’ve haven’t done a single thing I’m proud of.” (I’m paraphrasing). With his lover’s urging, they move to San Francisco, reinvent themselves and within a year, he is on the path that will eventually shape the modern gay rights movement.
When I have students read PUSH, I ask them to also read an interview with her conducted by Patricia Bell Scott in Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives. Here is an excerpt from that interview:
“Although I had been writing for some time, I was almost forty before I claimed my identity as a writer. In 1990, when I did my last major performance, a fifty minute choreopoem, ‘Are You Ready to Rock,’ my business manager, a wonderful young African American woman, said to me, “If I’m going to promote you as a writer, where’s the writing? Where’s the book?” I was trying to do the performance work, trying to write, and none of it was making a living. I was exhausted. Dead tired. And I couldn’t go on.
I went through an intense midlife-turning forty crisis. I felt that I had not really done much with my life, when I compared myself to mentors like Ntozake [Shange], who had five or six books. Then I looked at some of the reasons I hadn’t tried. A lack of confidence-a belief that maybe I couldn’t do it or that I wasn’t good or smart enough. I also realized that I had never committed myself to any one thing. I had always tried to dance, act and write at the same time.
With this awareness, I decided to totally commit myself to becoming a writer. I said “I will put together a collection of writings for publication,” and that became American Dreams. I said, “I will go to school and get an MFA degree”; and I did.”
Witnessing Harvey Milk’s decision to begin over again at 40 and Sapphire’s commitment to writing at 40 makes me grateful about manifesting my creative work at this stage in my life (41). It’s only been recently that I’ve come to appreciate that the path to your heart’s desire is rarely straight and narrow, or, progress easily demarcated strictly by one’s age.
I’ve always been somewhat enchanted with child stars and people who seem to achieve big things early in their careers. And, it’s true that as an academic, I’ve had solid and early professional success, so I can’t complain on that front. I’ve, however, been creatively writing all my life, but it is has only been in the last ten years that I’ve made more space for that identity to flourish. I used to be more convinced that something needed to happen at a particular age: 20, 25, and 38. I’m now less worried about age being a gauge of inner or outer success. I do think that by midlife, people are usually getting intuitive prompts, urgings and guidance about new directions, if they have been blocked. This often leads to new commitments to pursue buried or unrealized dreams.
I am also cheered by examples of writers including Amy Tan and Toni Morrison that didn’t start their writing careers until their late thirties or early 40s. PUSH is a remarkable novel and I think the skill and focus it took to craft it might not had happened if Sapphire had not lived a full and complex life (sex worker, writer, incest survivor, performance artist, teacher), and faced her internal demons and doubts squarely in the face as a mature woman. Her life and other ‘over thirty’ creative bloomers are useful reminders of the arc of human potential.
I hope that you will read PUSH and see the film. So, if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where it is opening this weekend, go see it. Seeing the film sends a message to Hollywood that the viewing public is interested in being challenged and hearing new stories.
I’ve included a link to Sapphire being interviewed on NPR:
Sapphire’s Story: How ‘Push’ Became ‘Precious’
All things considered: NOV 6 – 2009