Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thoughts on the Film Precious

I saw the film Precious a few weeks ago at the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault's special screening of the film. (You can find more information about NCCASA here.) For those of you who have not seen the film, an overview of the movie and plot can be found in the New York Times review by A.O. Scott here. (ALERT! THERE ARE "PRECIOUS" SPOLIERS IN THIS BLOG. If you don't want to know what happens, go watch the film first. Then come back and read the blog.)

I found the film both horrifyingly gut-wrenching and beautiful. For me, the film was about resilience in the context of incredible adversity. The film is also about how a writer finds her voice and then is able to tell her story of survival in a way that positively transforms her life, as well as the lives of those around her.

The way that Lee Daniels (the filmmaker) portrays Precious' life- by blending elements of visual escapism with the reality of the harrowing story- is innovative and creative. At key times of crisis in the plot, the main character Precious (as played by Gabourey Sidibe) escapes into a fantasy world of her own making. In this regard, I found the film to be one of the best creative representations of trauma symptoms of dissociation that I've ever seen. With the film's portrayal of the effects of the horrific violent trauma, as well as its portrayal of one survivor's path toward recovery and resilience, the film is well worth seeing. All that said, the violence is realistically disturbing. So I encourage readers to carefully consider the potential emotional impact of the film before going out to see it.

Since seeing the film, I've been following the debate in the media about the film's depiction of African Americans. Felicia Lee's New York Times article pithily sums up the core issues in the debate by asking this question about the film: "A reinforcement of noxious stereotypes or a realistic and therapeutic portrayal of a black family in America?" This debate is important, and the issues are significant. No matter how well intentioned and meaningful, the life story of a resilient violence survivor loses its significance if the story relies on clich├ęs and racists stereotypes.

However, I find that one important aspect of this debate has been neglected in the articles and blogs I've read so far. Very little has been said about the importance of community and society for understanding why some groups of people are at great risk for family violence. Much of the debate focuses on how the individuals in the film are portrayed. Less has been said about Precious' victimization in relation to the community and social context in which the violence (and story) occurs. Given what the violence research says about the importance of this context, I find that it is impossible to understand Precious' story without considering the community and society in which Precious lives her life.

Though the research on community and social risk factors for violence is limited and more work needs to be done in this important area, the research is growing and shows that community and social factors play a key role in the prevalence of family violence. For example, Taft and colleagues' recent research emphasizes the importance of the social and cultural context for partner violence against African American women. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended framework for preventing sexual violence emphasizes community and social change strategies as much as it emphasizes individual change strategies for violence prevention. Thus, the violence research tells us that to fully understand Precious' victimization we must also consider the effects of racism and poverty in her life.

Both poverty and racism insidiously work to undermine the community and social resources that help protect people from violence. So when some groups of people in our society are burdened with oppressive social realties like racism and poverty, those groups tend to experience more problems of violence and victimization. For example, I was struck in the film by how isolated Precious and her mother were from any sources of social supports, such as neighbors, friends and family, who may have helped and protected Precious. Research shows over and over again how important positive, supportive social relationships can be for preventing and ending family violence. Unfortunately, such resources were not available to Precious.

I was also struck by how many professionals were involved in Precious' life- educators, social workers, child protection workers- and how little was done by any of these people to help protect Precious. Indeed, it took Precious' second pregnancy by her father before an educator and a social worker took an interest in helping her. In this way, the film did an excellent job of showing the problems of our communities' over-burdened and under-funded systems, such as schools, welfare, and child protection. As the film depicts, though these systems are charged with protecting the vulnerable members of our communities, too many people fall through the cracks in these systems never to receive help or support.

When these systems are so over-burdened and under-funded, the people who work in these systems (even the very well meaning ones) may be more unhelpful than helpful. A wonderful example of such a person was Mariah Carey as she portrayed Precious' social worker. Though the social worker does try to help Precious, the social worker's interventions are at best ineffective and at worst harmful. One of these harmful interventions as seen in the film was the counseling session that the social worker holds with Precious and her mother. Though this counseling session makes for a dramatic and pivotal moment in the story, it also makes for pretty poor- and potentially harmful- social work practice. (A note to social work educators here: This film could be an excellent teaching tool in what NOT to do to help clients.) The counseling session is a moment of empowerment and resilience for Precious because of her own inner resources and strengths, not because of anything the social worker does.

In the end, I feel positively about the film "Precious" because it addressed violence as a social justice issue. In this way, the film reminded me very much of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Both Morrison's and Daniel's work explore the issues of family violence, child abuse, incest leading to pregnancy, poverty and racism. And both works remind us that we cannot fully comprehend or address violence in its many forms without considering social inequalities. I'm hopeful that this film, as well as the controversy that the film sparked, will help bring awareness to the issues of family and sexual violence, as well as urge those of us who are working to prevent violence to address the gender, racial and socioeconomic inequalities that perpetuate violence.