Wednesday, November 11, 2009

White on Precious + College for Fewer + CC Reading + AAWW Awards

PreciousI haven't seen Precious yet. I'm torn; on the one hand I feel I ought to see it, and on the other hand...I recall Sapphire's extremely disturbing book, Push, which it took every fiber inside me to get through. (And yet the other night Mariah Carey told Larry King she read it twice. Really? Okay.) I had some issues with the novel, but on the whole I felt the author was telling a story that she felt needed to be told, even if it often felt gut-gnawingly wrenched from deep inside (if not her, then someone else.) The book and film, I recognize, are different. Entertainment titans Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey have gotten behind it, and the kudos from cinetomanes has been strong and sustained. A filmmaker I admire tremendously went to see it last week and tweeted his praise. Yet not everyone is agog over it. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane and New York Magazine's David Edelstein weren't sold. And there's always Armond White, in the New York Press, to challenge the cheering chorus. His review is titled "Pride and Precious," and it is an erupting volcano of critical vehemence. Brotha ain't playing:

SHAME ON TYLER PERRY and Oprah Winfrey for signing on as air-quote executive producers of Precious. After this post-hip-hop freak show wowed Sundance last January, it now slouches toward Oscar ratification thanks to its powerful friends.Winfrey and Perry had no hand in the actual production of Precious, yet the movie must have touched some sore spot in their demagogue psyches. They’ve piggybacked their reps as black success stories hoping to camouflage Precious’ con job—even though it’s more scandalous than their own upliftment trade. Perry and Winfrey naively treat Precious’ exhibition of ghetto tragedy and female disempowerment as if it were raw truth. It helps contrast and highlight their achievements as black American paradigms—self-respect be damned.

And he continues:

Winfrey, Perry and Daniels make an unholy triumvirate.They come together at some intersection of race exploitation and opportunism. These two media titans—plus one shrewd pathology pimp—use Precious to rework Booker T. Washington’s early 20th-century manifesto Up From Slavery into extreme drama for the new millennium: Up From Incest, Child Abuse,Teenage Pregnancy, Poverty and AIDS. Regardless of its narrative details about class and gender, Precious is an orgy of prurience. All the terrible, depressing (not uplifting) things that happen to 16 year-old Precious recall that memorable All About Eve line, “Everything but the bloodhounds nipping at her rear-end.”

It starts with the opening scene of Precious’ Cinderella fantasy. Tarted up in a boa and gown, walking a red carpet light years away from her tenement reality, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) sighs, “I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with nice hair.” Her ideal smacks of selfhatred—the colorism issue that Daniels exacerbates without exploring. He casts light-skinned actors as kind (schoolteacher Paula Patton, social worker Mariah Carey, nurse Lenny Kravitz and an actual Down syndrome child as Precious’ first-born) and dark-skinned actors as terrors. Sidibe herself is presented as an animal-like stereotype—she’s so obese her face seems bloated into a permanent pout.This is not the breakthrough Todd Solondz achieved in Palindromes where plus-size black actress Sharon Wilkins artfully represented the immensity of an outcast’s misunderstood humanity. Instead, Sidibe’s fancy-dressed daydream looks laughable; poorly photographed, its primary effect is pathetic.

It never lets up. In fact, the final paragraph includes a description that verges on being gratuitously cruel, even as it underlines a critique White has made more than once about other films that appear to traffic in the same toxic brew as this one.

So who knows, I may go see it. Or not. It would be great, however, to see some films and non-"reality" TV shows about middle and working-class and poor people, black, white, latino, asian-american, all races and ethnicities, that did not hinge on stereotypes, pathologies, criminal activity, and the like. Does anyone in Hollywood or New York or elsewhere in the US remember how to make those films anymore? (Or get financing to do so....)

Ishmael Reed mentions Precious in one of his harsh critiques...

UPDATE: Oh my! Reed goes even further, in "The Selling of Precious."


The United States has shed millions of manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years. Under conservative and neoliberal economic policies, union membership and influence have ebbed dramatically since their heyday half a century ago. Low-skill jobs, in the construction and service sectors, which abounded a decade ago, have evaporated with the national and global economic collapse. Leaders on the right and left are still urging people to "go back to school" for retraining, for jobs that might not be there, in an economic environment that has already seen dramatic structural transformation, and for which college-level study, and the social, political, economic, and cultural capital, and accreditation it brings, have become increasingly necessary. And financially out of reach of more and more students.

So the Chronicle of Higher Education last week asked: Are Too Many Students Going to College?

I thought the question was, How Will Most Students Who Want to Go to College But Aren't Rich Going to Afford to Do So? (When I was a freshman, my total tuition, with room, board and facilities fees, was about $13,150. When I graduated four years later, it was around $16,145. Though I have paid off my student loans, it seemed impossibly exorbitant, especially compared to state universities, like my home one, where a year's tuition was around $3,300-$5,000 over the same period. This upcoming year my undergraduate institution's tuition, with room, board, and facilities fees, will be $48,868. Insane, even if students whose parents earn under a certain amount can essentially attend for almost nothing. My former home state's flagship public university's costs, for 2008-9? $20,600!)

In case you haven't seen it, how people with and without high school educations and college degrees are faring in the current economic environment.


Angela Jackson and Patricia Spears JonesAlso taking place tomorrow, a Cave Canem event:

Angela Jackson & Patricia Spears Jones will be reading at Poets House!

Chicago-based poet Angela Jackson and New York City’s Patricia Spears Jones will read from their work and talk about their literary coming of age in the cities they call home. The Cave Canem Writers Foundation joins Poets House and Northwestern University Press in celebrating the launch of Angela Jackson's new and extraordinary novel Where I Must Go.

Thursday, November 12, 2009
7:00pm - 9:00pm
Poets House
10 River Terrace
New York, NY

Catch it if you're available!


This weekend the Asian American Writers Workshop will host PAGE TURNER: The Asian American Literary Festival, in New York City. Events begin on Friday, November 13, with a cocktail party and gala dinner that will include special guest and Booker Prize-winner Michael Ondaatje, and the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award legendary Alfre A. Knopf Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Sonny Mehta

A full slate of readings, and the AAWW's 12th Annual Literary Awards ceremony will take place on Saturday, November 14, at the Powerhouse Arena in D.U.M.B.O., Brooklyn, at 37 Main Street.

This year's Asian American Writers Workshop Award winners and finalists:

The winner of the Twelfth Annual Asian American Literary Award in Fiction is Jhumpa Lahiri for her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth. The two finalists are Amitav Ghosh for Sea of Poppies and Ed Park for Personal Days.

The winner of the Twelfth Annual Asian American Literary Award in Poetry is Sesshu Foster for his collection World Ball Notebook. The two finalists are Monica Ferrell for Beasts for the Chase and Jeffrey Yang for An Aquarium.

The winner of the Twelfth Annual Asian American Literary Award in Nonfiction is Leslie T. Chang for her book Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. The two finalists are Kao Kalia Yang for The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and Kavitha Rajagopalan for Muslims of The Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West.

Congratulations to the winners and finalists!

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