Gabourey Sidibe: The girl who divided black America

Morbidly obese, illiterate, abused physically and emotionally by her parents – and adored by white critics... Why controversial new movie 'Precious' has African-Americans in turmoil
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The Independent Culture

When news broke in early 2008 that the American entrepreneur Lee Daniels was planning to direct a feature film adaptation of Sapphire's 1996 bestseller Push, it's safe to say that few expected a masterpiece. Though he produced two of the better US indies of the first half of the decade, the Oscar-winning Monster's Ball (2001) and The Woodsman (2004), Daniel's directorial debut, 2005's Shadowboxer, had been anything but a success. In fact, it was the kind of movie most directors quietly excise from their CVs.

Hysterically overwrought and crudely conceived, this tale of a hitman (Cuba Gooding Jr) and his cancer-stricken stepmother (also an assassin, and played by a game Helen Mirren), reached an early climax – pun very much intended – when the former shoots the latter in the head ... while simultaneously bringing her to orgasm in the woods. If nothing else, Shadowboxer at least established that, when it came to stories, Daniels likes them big and lurid.

Undeterred, his follow-up premièred at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, under its original title, Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire. The tale of a morbidly obese, illiterate, black teenage girl from the housing projects, who is forced to endure repeated sexual abuse by her father and emotional and physical battery by her abusive mother, it boasted an unknown lead – the 26-year-old Gabourey Sidibe – and, in supporting roles, some unpredictable choices: notably, the musicians Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey.

Push arrived at Sundance largely unseen and without a distributor; but its first screening was a hit and a bidding war ensued. The upshot: it was bought by Lionsgate Entertainment – a shrewd acquisition, considering the film took both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for best drama. Then, less than a month later, the writer-director Tyler Perry, an executive producer on the film, announced that he would be teaming up with Oprah Winfrey to promote it. Suddenly its ascendance appeared inevitable.

Retitled Precious, it made its international première at Cannes in May, and attracted still more fans – though British critics were more guarded in their praise than their American counterparts. In September, it won the People's Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival. And in November, it was released in US cinemas, where it was greeted with effusive praise from most critics.

Most, but not all. Enter Armond White, long-time critic for the New York Press and current chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. His review was particularly anticipated since he is one of the few African-American critics with any kind of national profile – and is known, furthermore, for the violent unpredictability of his opinions.

He did not disappoint. "Not since The Birth of a Nation [which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes] has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious," he thundered. "Full of brazenly racist clichés... it is a sociological horror show."

However, after lambasting both Perry and Winfrey for legitimising the release with their endorsements ("self-respect be damned"), White rather crippled his own argument when he contrasted the movie with other "excellent recent films with black themes" – and then went on to list the Eddie Murphy disasters Norbit and Meet Dave, and the Wayans brothers' comedy Little Man, a title pilloried by almost every other critic and which, the British reviewer Mark Kermode said, signalled "the end of Western civilisation as we know it".

White is a contrarian and a provocateur – and, as may be surmised from his examples, a man of somewhat dubious taste. Yet amid his righteous indignation, he made one or two interesting points – not least how Daniels, whether consciously or not, cast light-skinned actors as kindly and understanding (Mariah Carey, Paula Patton), and dark-skinned actors as aggressors.

Nor, for that matter, was he alone in his distaste for the film. Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, David Edelstein in New York magazine, and Ed Gonzalez at Slant all offered dissenting voices – the latter dismissing it as "an impeccably acted piece of trash".

"You'd think the litany of horrors that befall Harlem teenager Clareece 'Precious' Jones – illiteracy, rape, domestic abuse, Mariah Carey – would register with some piercing and perceptive effect," wrote Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. "Instead, they pass by with the glazed-over, lookie-lookie luridness of a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode."

More importantly, the film proved divisive within the African-American community that constituted its core demographic. Writing in the Los Angeles Times last November, Erin Aubry Kaplan noted the uncertainty the film generated among black audiences – partly, she conceded, "because the embrace of Precious by the white film establishment has been a bit disorienting for black folk, even offputting", but mostly because the film's own horrors were "striking chords of recognition for many black people that are making them not angry or enthusiastic, but uncertain".

One of the more astute readings came from C Jeffrey Wright, chief executive of Urban Ministries Inc, "North America's largest independent African-American religious media firm". Writing on a conservative Christian website – urbanfaith.com – Wright noted that the main problem with Precious resided less with the film itself (though he was dismayed by the movie's lack of "achiever values"), than with the fact that it existed in a near vacuum.

With so few black-oriented films released, he argued, and such a paucity of black lives seen on screen, Precious was held to an impossibly high standard, obliged to be all things to all viewers: gripping drama and positive example. Had more, different kinds of the black experience been explored in movies, this film's resolutely downbeat story would have seemed less like self-hatred paraded for the edification of liberal white folks.

It's the flipside of White's argument: that Precious is bad art not for the crudeness of its technique (by far the most common complaint among white reviewers), but because it sets a bad example for how black Americans want to see themselves represented.

All of which raises an interesting question: how will the various issues Precious raises play across the Atlantic? Will black audiences in Britain feel a natural affinity with the travails of Precious? Will they be as moved? Or indeed, will they even register? Many of the cultural signifiers that matter most to African-American audiences, after all, face a much tougher time in the UK. Oprah is famous in Britain, certainly – but not nearly the cultural touchstone she is in the US.

Likewise, the aforementioned Tyler Perry. A one-man industry who has written, directed, produced and acted in eight independent feature films in the past five years, and built an entertainment empire worth in the vicinity of a billion dollars, he barely figures on the radar of black-British audiences. His face appears on no magazine covers; his films remain mostly undistributed, his plays unperformed.

The British activist Toyin Agbetu echoes C Jeffrey Wright in suggesting that whatever controversy Precious has engendered is merely a symptom of deeper, longer-term problems. The founder of the pan-African human-rights organisation Ligali, dedicated to challenging the misrepresentation of African people, culture and history in the British media, Agbetu laments the lack of identifiable African and Caribbean figures on the screen.

"For many reasons," he explains, "many Africans in America seem to experience more of a disconnect with their homeland and heritage. They're consumed by notions of a national, rather than a racial identity: in many ways, being perceived as an American is much more important than being an African. Whereas in Britain, people have more of a direct link to their ancestral heritage.

"But when it comes to the media – and to film and television in particular – I think our positions actually become much closer, simply because we both face much the same difficulties. Whether it's Britain or the US, there are so few depictions out there about the actual character of African life, that every piece of what might be considered misrepresentation is magnified and distorted."

So what's the remedy? "Well, naturally we want some kind of balance – because without it you're seeing something that's less than the truth. But balance is hard to achieve when there's so little range actually being shown."

In addition to its growing pile of festival honours, Precious has been nominated for three Golden Globe awards, including Best Picture. Oscar nominations will surely follow. (Though interestingly, its favourite status has slipped in recent weeks, overtaken by Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker.)

And Daniels is going from strength to strength. On 8 January, he was shortlisted for a Directors Guild of America award – the first African-American ever to be nominated – and was recently reported to be considering an offer to bring Miss Saigon to the big screen. Prostitution, murder, interracial love, the Vietnam War... somehow, he seems the perfect choice.

'Precious' (15) is released on Friday

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