Let's assume that Oprah's reach is strong enough and far enough to get her demographic to plunk down their eight to 12 dollars to see Precious – the Oprah Effect in full effect. (You can find out where and when Precious is playing near you on the official movie website.)
I'm not talking about critics and journalists or the people in big cities who like to participate in a friendly Oscar pool or want to be up on what was in the New York Times. They're already seeing the movie in droves; it made $1.8M in limited release its opening weekend. The latest numbers I could find on her demographic are from 2007, back when people were wondering if Oprah could help get a president elected. (Answer: Yes, she can.)
According to Nielsen via MSNBC, "Oprah's audience is predominantly female, white, and over the age of 55. Nationally 7.4 million people watch Oprah daily -- about 2.6% of American households. Four percent of American women (about 5.7 million) watch her daily, compared with 1.2% of men (1.7 million people). Overall, 2% of all 18- to 49-year-olds watch Oprah."Who among them will see Precious? And more importantly, what will they think? Will it reinforce the stereotypes of welfare mothers and fried-chicken-stealing teens in Harlem without the benefit of reading the book beforehand or being steeped in the hallowed halls of academia?
Push's author Sapphire told NPR earlier this month, "In 2009, we have a tremendous range of black families in the media, form the Cosbys to the Obamas, so now, I think, we are safe enough and secure enough to show this diseased situation with the hope that we can see it as something that needs to be healed, as opposed to something that we need to hide from the public's view."
I respectfully disagree. If anything, President Obama has allowed us to see more clearly than ever that racism is still a huge problem in America. In fact, his presidency has brought racists out of the closet in full force, and in a manner that is unbelievably tolerated.
If you haven't read the book, you won't know what was left out or maybe not fully explained. Whether that's due to poor writing or time constraints is unclear. Light-skinned actors play all the "good" parts, but unless you've read the book, you might assume it's subtle racism in casting, rather than an aspect of Precious's own internalized self-hatred. If you don't have a certain context or lens to view Precious through, it can come across as, yes, racist.
As Latoya Peterson at Jezebel writes, "In Precious' mind, whiteness is equivalent to being loved, safe, and wanted. The movie briefly touches on this, showing Precious looking in the mirror and seeing a young white girl peering back at her, but this moment is robbed from its potency unless you are exposed to the constant self-hatred throbbing in her brain."
I also think that some viewers will not think that Precious's story is possible. In fact, some critics that I really respect also doubt that that many things can really happen to one person. But even though Sapphire says that this character is a "composite," these things can and do happen to people – sometimes all at once.
Sapphire, who taught teens in Harlem from the early '80s to the early '90s, based this book on what she saw around her. She told Mark Marvel in Interview magazine in 1996, "[Precious] was a composite. Although while I was teaching, I did meet a young woman who told me that she had a baby by her father when she was twelve. I thought, How do you get up from that? So that was something that just stayed with me. Then, later, she told me she had AIDS. I went into this whole thing of, 'Many people have HIV, and da-da-da,' and then I realized she was trying to tell me she was gonna die. She just said, 'I don't have time for this. I'm not dropping out, but I don't have time to take the G.E.D. and all that.' I asked her what she wanted to do. She was a brilliant poet and she said, 'I wanna write.' And that's when I realized she, like most of the women in that class, was never gonna be able to tell her story."
Later in the same interview, NPR related that "recently [Sapphire] was approached by a white woman in Utah who told her that after seeing the film that she would never look at an overweight black woman again with the same judgment:
'After seeing this film, she had to deal with an obese black woman as a feeling, intelligent person as a person who dreams, as a person who wants the things that she wants. So we brought up a stereotype, and we cracked it open, and a human being comes forth.'"
What do you think?