Ilana Simons

Ilana Simons Ph.D.

The Literary Mind

"Precious": Being Black in America

Some race conversations are harder than others are.

Posted Nov 23, 2009

Some race conversations are harder than others are. At times we can talk about race with lightheartedness, and at other times, we can't. There are reasons for that. When talk leads to a real need for change, we usually resist it.

At least those ideas felt clear to me this weekend, when I saw two racially-charged movies on the same day--Precious, which is an amazing portrayal of black America; and A Serious Man, which is a lighter portrayal of Jewish America.  The movies weren't made with intentions to refer to each other.  Precious is a drama meant to make us seriously rethink race, and A Serious Man is comedy that aspires to make us laugh about it.  But I was lucky enough to see them, by chance, back to back.  And considering these movies together tells us something about the divergent ways that black and Jewish cultures are able to express themselves in this country.

Both movies feature a protagonist whose problems come from race and culture. Precious features a girl by that name who lives in Harlem in the 1980's. Precious, age 16, suffers from punishing social forces: poverty, a school that fails her because administrators don't understand her situation, and government agencies that blame her as they purport to help her. Her mother physically abuses her and her dad rapes her, leaving her with HIV and two babies, one with Down Syndrome. That's a hell enclosed by culture. In the other movie, A Serious Man, we get Larry Gopnik, a Jew in Minnesota in the 1960's. He suffers from his cultural situation too, if less urgently: He's got an unfaithful wife, a kvetching family, a sense of anonymity at work, and a God who doesn't seem to care for him. Here, being a Jew means bearing the weight of the world, with the occasional reprieve of slapstick.

It's important to restate that Precious sets out to be more serious than A Serious Man does.  But this fact--that one movie is heavy and another is light--isn't inconsequential. It tells us something about what's possible in race conversations today.  We are living at a time in which a Jewish filmmaker can make a movie about Jewishness and not spark a cultural divide, and a serious movie about black culture necessarily prompts one.

Indeed, critics and viewers of various races have been polarized in their reception of Precious. It's as if an honest portrayal of a part of black culture is something like setting off a bomb. Some writers blame the movie for reproducing stereotyped images of a violent black America (It's "racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity" writes Armond White in New York Press on November 4). Many blame the movie for being too bleak, for highlighting urban blight without offering an equal image of hope. White goes on in his article: Precious is "full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken); it is a sociological horror show."

But Precious presents cultural truths with clarity--and the question is why this description of some people's experience in America sparks such recoil.  One answer is that in this honest, new framing of American life, there's so much at stake.  The movie shows what pain exists for a large portion of the population who don't have the recourses to civilly argue their case.  It shows how difficult upward mobility is, and how ineffective government agencies are in fixing the situation.  It shows how much people with power overlook people without power, and how wrong they are in some of their assumptions.  This conversation leads to serious intersections: to necessary blame; to feelings of shame and anger.

In turn, a lot of people don't want Precious to say what it says so loudly. It seems more copacetic to enjoy the silence we've sometimes enjoyed.  Indeed, President Obama referred to this silence between black and white cultures in his well-known speech on race in March, 2008. In that speech, Obama explained that many black Americans know an American experience which is so painful and divergent from dominant American myths that they feel they can not express it publicly: "[Their ideas about race and] anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But [they do] find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. [The] anger is real; it is powerful."

In his speech, Obama went on to say that white Americans also feel an anger which they don't publicly admit, and the result is that races put on masks for each other, and there's a communication gap between communities.  Because the dialogue is repressed, anger and a sense that one group can't possibly understand the other grow, under the surface.  "Resentments [among white Americans] aren't always expressed in polite company [either]," Obama said, and "to wish away the resentments of [either white or black] Americans" is to wish away a growing beast at the center of our culture.

When a movie like Precious comes along, a lot of people resent the voice. In understanding our fear of it--and the change that real dialogue would demand--it is useful to contrast the reception of Precious with the reception of A Serious Man, the Coen brothers' expression of the Jewish experience. The Coen brothers' film has been ringed--by the brothers, by the audience, and by the critics--with an unbearable lightness. That lightness speaks to the fact that Jewish Americans have developed a number of public voices which they feel comfortable with, and which popular culture generally accepts.  Jewish public voices enjoy a familiarity with the wider culture, or a freedom of expression without immediate repercussion.

This is not to say that Jewish Americans have not suffered and do not suffer their share of discrimination and pain, but it is to say that Jewish Americans are doing relatively well in terms of basic concerns for health and safety, or how the American Dream is working out for them. In turn, the Jewish culture can comment on its relationship to the Dream without the threat of a larger overhaul of American structures. Jewish humor (although it emerged from darker times) is currently a part of the felt security. At the end of their film, the Coen brothers include a funny tagline: "No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture." That line seems to imply we are safe. It also implies we are a group.  It is nearly impossible to imagine a line at the end of a film by filmmaker who was black reading "No black Americans were harmed in the making of this motion picture." That's because it wouldn't be true: People are constantly hurt because of the lack of public dialogue about black America.

In the Coen brothers' film, there is playfulness without imminent risk-as if this voice generally enjoys security in its situation and boundaries. There is a sense of joy and comfort behind "inside jokes" Jews can tell. Whether it's through Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Philip Roth, or the Coen Brothers ("No Jews were hurt..."), there is a sense that the community "gets" itself, and that cohesion doesn't depend on further fighting with America at large. In contrast, the "insider" lingo of black culture feels more in flux, or highly active: this language has the power to divide, to mark a line of defense or attack.

It is important to note that under the umbrella of well-meaning humor, the Coen brothers let slip some racist moments in A Serious Man. These moments would never have been glossed over by the audience or critics had they appeared in Precious. At different points in the Coen brothers' movie, we meet a Korean student who seems schizoid in his stereotyped academic intensity, and a caricatured Goy gun-toting neighbor. Here, stereotypes feel light-again, as if we're all in this game of prejudice and rebound together.

In thinking about fear and lightness in different cultural dialogues, also consider the newspaper headlines which have welcomed the two films in the past month. The New York Times presented articles on Precious with headlines of seriousness: "Precious Ignites a Debate on the Black Narrative" and "To Blacks, Precious Is ‘Demeaned' or ‘Angelic'" (Felicia R. Lee, NYT; Nov 20). It would be hard to imagine a headline reading "To Jews, [insert character name here] is ‘Demeaned' or ‘Angelic.'" In the context of Jewish culture, it would be hard to claim that an issue was so immediately or singularly divisive.  In contrast, the headlines which have ushered in A Serious Man have been ringed with humor: "The Coen brothers' A Serious Man: More Jewish than matzo balls?" (Patrick Goldstein, LA Times, Sept 22); "Are you Serious?: The Coen brothers make the most Jewish movie ever - mazel tov" (Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News, Oct 16), and "A Serious Man - The Coen brothers' most Jewish film to date" (Shlomo Schwartzberg, The Jewish World, Oct 26).

That last line is telling: "The Coen brothers' most Jewish film to date." There's freedom there--as if the brothers are at liberty to step in and out of their Jewish identities depending on the movies they're making. They can put on and take off their various cultural allegiances at will. It would probably be incendiary, in contrast, to call a film by someone who was black his "most black film to date." The lightness doesn't translate: Many Americans have more safety in their various cultural roles than black artists do.

I certainly don't mean to blame the Coen brothers for enjoying a sense of humor, or for the cultural position which some cultures occupy. I do only mean to draw a meaningful contrast: We are scared of talking about black America. Talk about black America makes us singularly serious and earnest. Talk about black America is especially hard to sustain without defensive reactions. I'd like to hear why you think this is. 

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