Two stories won’t go away. The first are the occasional but passionate articles about Precious, whether it’s a movie for the white community to feel better about themselves (“see the black people can find their way out of the ghetto), and/or it’s a movie that stereotypes the African American community. The NY Times posted an op-ed about it recently:
The blacks who are enraged by ‚Precious‚ have probably figured out that this film wasn’t meant for them. It was the enthusiastic response from white audiences and critics that culminated in the film being nominated for six Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an outfit whose 43 governors are all white and whose membership in terms of diversity is about 40 years behind Mississippi. In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more ‚Äúmiddle-class white Americans‚Äù to his film.
He finishes with:
Redemption through learning the ways of white culture is an old Hollywood theme. D. W. Griffith produced a series of movies in which Chinese, Indians and blacks were lifted from savagery through assimilation. A more recent example of climbing out of the ghetto through assimilation is ‚ÄúDangerous Minds,‚Äù where black and Latino students are rescued by a curriculum that doesn‚Äôt include a single black or Latino writer.
Right, okay. But that story really did happen. So we should just not tell that story?
Would the world be a better place had Precious never been made? Do black filmmakers, and women filmmakers, always have to “speak for the community”? Can they ever just make films about the not-black-not-white-but-human condition? Do we always see that Precious is black? I don’t have the answers to these questions. I am merely asking them. “My black friend” in New York felt a great kinship with the character and the film – does that make him an Uncle Tom? Owen Gleiberman defends with an article that declares, “Attacks nf Precious are starting to say more about the attackers:”
The insult of a clich√© ‚Äî as drama, or as social observation ‚Äî is that it‚Äôs a lazy abstraction elevated to a plane of ‚Äútruth.‚Äù Whereas what I loved about Precious is that it presents its heroine, from minute one, as a lacerating and tragic and spiritually messy and complicated individual; that‚Äôs true of the forces that bear down upon her as well. Gabourey Sidibe‚Äôs impacted, mostly hushed, but quietly emotional performance allows you to respond to the moment-by-moment experience of Precious‚Äô internal strife, and the nearly universal praise for Mo‚ÄôNique‚Äôs performance is a recognition that Precious‚Äô mother is never just a ‚Äútype.‚Äù She‚Äôs a force, as profoundly etched in the misery of her past and the love-hate rage of her present as the clinging monster-mother from The Glass Menagerie.
What I most want to address, however, are several points in Reed‚Äôs essay that strike me as almost perversely wrongheaded. After making the specious claim that Precious is a movie largely reviled by African-Americans (he provides no evidence ‚Äî but the film‚Äôs box-office demographics do not bear out that assertion), he states: ‚ÄúIn guilt-free bits of merchandise like Precious, white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans.‚Äù
I think he‚Äôs talking about a different movie. Over the decades, Hollywood has made dozens of facile dramas, many of them set at inner-city schools, in which African-Americans are lifted up through the efforts of saintly white characters. But Precious isn‚Äôt one of those films. There are virtually no white characters in the movie; the stray ones who appear don‚Äôt carry any noble, righteous weight. Yet having established the patronizing genre/category he thinks that Precious belongs in, Reed writes that white critics ‚Äúmaintain that the movie is worthwhile because, through the efforts of a teacher, this girl begins her first awkward efforts at writing.‚Äù He then adds, ‚ÄúRedemption through learning the ways of white culture is an old Hollywood theme.‚Äù
It seriously made my jaw drop to see a scholar of Ishmael Reed‚Äôs stature claim, in the middle of the New York Times, that an abused, illiterate black teenager struggling to learn how to read and write is an instance of someone ‚Äúlearning the ways of white culture.‚Äù Since when did literacy become a conspiracy of ‚Äúwhite‚Äù indoctrinization? It‚Äôs enough to make you wonder if the victimization stereotypes that Reed sees in this movie are really in the eye of the beholder.
Meanwhile, some have charged, or probed at any rate, this idea of the Wandering Jew in An Education. True, the real-life character upon whom David was based was, in fact, Jewish, and therefore a bit of a stranger in a strange land amid the gentiles. But claims have been made that THIS David, played by Peter Scarsgaard, is the embodiment of all that has always been assumed and feared about Jews. I would think it laughable if I hadn’t myself been the victim of hate mail (I’m only half Jewish on my father’s side – not even technically Jewish, but do you think that makes a difference? My blood must be tainted). The belief that Jews are the root of all possible evil in society prevails to this day. Irina Bragen lays it out on Fighthatred.com piece called, “The Wandering Jew in ‘An Education’: The Anatomy of an Anti-Semitic Film”:
From the moment David starts following the teenage Jenny in his fancy car, the pudgy, effete David Goldman proclaims his ethnicity. (Jenny: ‚ÄúI‚Äôm not a Jew.‚Äù David: ‚ÄúNo, I am. I wasn‚Äôt … accusing you.‚Äù) Like the predatory creature characterized in ‚ÄúDer Ewige Juden,‚Äù Goldman pretends to adopt the values of his host culture in order to turn its treasures into his profit. He offers Jenny ‚Äúthree five-pound notes‚Äù to drive her cello home safely out of the rain; ‚ÄúI‚Äôm a music lover,‚Äù he tells her. Then he proceeds to corrupt the innocent gentile girl (played by Carey Mulligan) with expensive flowers, gifts, concerts, art auctions and trips to Oxford and Paris.
David enriches himself by ruining good English neighborhoods, deflating property values and looting cultural treasures from displaced widows. He moves blacks into white neighborhoods: ‚ÄúShvartzes,‚Äù he tells Jenny, ‚Äúhave to live somewhere; it‚Äôs not as if they can rent from their own kind.‚Äù The only identifiable Jew in the film, he constantly uses the collective ‚Äúwe‚Äù to justify his wickedness: ‚ÄúThis is how we are, Jenny,‚Äù Goldman editorializes. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not clever like you, so we have to be clever in other ways, because if we weren‚Äôt, there would be no fun.‚Äù He uses the word ‚Äústats‚Äù for old ladies he victimizes. They ‚Äúare scared of colored people; so we move the coloreds in and the old ladies out and I buy their flats cheap.‚Äù Along with his partner, Danny, David barges into a house, military style, and speeds away with precious relics. ‚ÄúWe have to be clever with maps,‚Äù he tells Jenny. An ancient map, he rationalizes, ‚Äúshouldn‚Äôt spend its life on a wall‚Ä¶. We know how to look after it‚Ä¶. We liberated it.‚Äù
Is it possible that the film attempts to link the predatory Jew with his purloined Jewish homeland?
And the article continues:
In ‚ÄúAn Education,‚Äù Jenny‚Äôs values, and those of her middle-class parents, teachers and first boyfriend, are antithetical to those of the crooked Jew. The Brits are refined, attractive, honest, sober and hard working. Boyfriend and classmate Graham, ‚Äúa handsome boy,‚Äù according to the script, plays the violin, is modest and clean-cut and presents Jenny with the same plainly wrapped Latin dictionary for her birthday as her parents.
Miss Stubbs, an English teacher, encourages Jenny to pass her ‚ÄúA‚Äù levels and earn her way into Oxford in the same honest way she once got into Cambridge. Like Graham and Jenny,
Miss Stubbs is ‚Äúattractive,‚Äù ‚Äúbright‚Äù and ‚Äúanimated.‚Äù
By contrast, writer Nick Hornby, who initiated the film project based on a woman‚Äôs personal essay that he changed to suit his themes, confesses that he feared ‚Äúno conventional male lead would want to play the part of the predatory, amoral, lonely David.‚Äù David‚Äôs wife, Sarah, ‚Äúa homely looking woman in her early 30s,‚Äù shows no surprise when her husband‚Äôs fianc√©e, Jenny, shows up at her door. As alien a creature as David may be, the dark, curly haired
Jewess is accustomed to her man‚Äôs infidelities.
The climactic scene after David proposes, when Jenny, unaware of his treachery, informs her school‚Äôs headmistress that she plans to marry a Jew, is blatantly anti-Semitic:
Headmistress: ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a Jew? You‚Äôre aware, I take it, that the Jews killed our Lord?‚Äù
Jenny: ‚ÄúAnd you‚Äôre aware, I suppose, that our Lord was Jewish?‚Äù
Headmistress: ‚ÄúI suppose he told you that. We‚Äôre all very sorry about what happened during the war. But that‚Äôs absolutely no excuse for that sort of malicious and untruthful propaganda.‚Äù
The pretty girl makes no attempt to defend her fianc√©‚Äôs human dignity, no effort to profess her love for him. As a depersonalized, demonized Jew, David has no qualities worth defending. Instead, Jenny suggests she prefers spending the Jew‚Äôs money over studying her Latin.
‚ÄúMy choice is to do something hard and boring or marry my Jew and go to Paris and Rome and … eat in nice restaurants and have fun.‚Äù
The articulate headmistress, played by Emma Thompson, defends the native values that the rootless Jew tempted her student to abandon. ‚ÄúNobody does anything worth doing without a degree,‚Äù she warns Jenny.
When a character like Emma Thompson makes blatant anti Semitic statements in a modern film, we expect that she will eventually be exposed for her ugly prejudices; in a coming of age story, especially, we expect that the education of the heroine would include her awakening to the falsehood of the racial slurs and stereotypes thrown at her by the corrupt adults in her world. In an Education, by contrast, it is Jenny who repents for her mistakes; After she discovers her fianc√© is married, a remorseful Jenny returns to the Headmistress of her school. A weeping Mary Magdalene, Jenny is now ‚Äúdressed soberly in clothes not unlike a school uniform.‚Äù This transformation, the screenwriter notes, ‚Äúcompletes a circle.‚Äù
The headmistress smiles, pleased at Jenny‚Äôs repentance and willingness to return to the wholesome Christian values with which she was raised. ‚ÄúI suppose you think I‚Äôm a ruined woman,‚Äù Jenny tells the Headmistress.¬†‚ÄúYou‚Äôre not a woman,‚Äù the Headmistress kindly responds, ‚Äúpleased with her line.‚Äù As movie blogger Joe Baltake points out, the film ‚Äúseems to go out of its way to justify Thompson‚Äôs anti-Semitic outburst.‚Äù Baltake is one of a minority of critics to acknowledge the film‚Äôs anti-Semitism (many of the glowing reviews fail to even mention that Jenny‚Äôs seducer is Jewish, or that the word ‚ÄúJew‚Äù appears in the film). A little more subtly, David Edelstein, of New York Magazine, writes, ‚ÄúThe story‚Äôs most obvious lesson is: Beware of Jews bearing flowers‚Ä¶.‚Äù
Despite the advertising campaign‚Äôs promise of a seduction film, there is nothing erotic about David. True to another ugly stereotype, Goldman turns out to be wimpy, ‚Äúfruity,‚Äù ‚Äúbabyish‚Äù and disgusting. He calls Jenny ‚ÄúMinnie,‚Äù and wants her to call him ‚ÄúBoobaloo.‚Äù
So I guess the only way to please the black community would have been to make Precious with all white cast, which they very easily could have done; sexual and physical abuse is not, nor should it be, owned by the black community – all of the horrid stories of men capturing women and locking them up in their basements for an entire lifetime have all been white, for example. And I suppose no one would complain about An Education if they had removed the Jew part of the story. The writer, Nick Hornby and the director, Lone Scherfig have both been quoted as saying they felt it was essential to portray David as an “exotic outsider,” someone Jenny’s family would not ordinarily allow in. Ah, but those trixter Jews! They can shape-shift and rob us of our money and steal our little girls!
In the end, I don’t trust my own education and moral center to be a valid source on these stories – in both cases, they are works of art. I believe in artistic freedom to tell a story, no matter what kinds of feelings it provokes. If we criticize every type of minority portrayed in a film because they aren’t portrayed in a “good light” we are going to have a very bland slate of films to choose from because everyone looks, acts and talks the same way. If we can’t tell black stories without speaking for the whole of the black community then we are going to be only tell stories about white people. Non-Jewish white people that is.
While these points certainly are valid, one hopes they don’t prevent storytellers from coming forward and writing their books, no matter how politically incorrect they are. One hopes these protestations don’t prevent directors from wanting to turn these books into movies. And finally, one hopes that political correctness doesn’t choke the ever-breathing life out of art.