Can the black family catch a break in the movies?
That's what many African-Americans in the Twin Cities and elsewhere are asking in the wake of two recent films: the critically acclaimed "Precious" and "The Blind Side," a No. 1 box-office hit that has grossed nearly $130 million since its Nov. 20 release.
• In "Precious," based on Sapphire's wrenching novel "Push," an obese, illiterate black teenager is pregnant again by her father while her also-abusive welfare-recipient mother scorns her for stealing her man.
• In "The Blind Side," which stars Sandra Bullock, an illiterate, homeless black teen is taken in by a kind white family. Under their care, he blossoms into a football star.
"I'm not saying that these things don't happen and that they are not good movies," said Brenda Anderson, 59, a law firm manager in Minneapolis. "It's just that at a time when the Obamas are in the White House, it seems like there's nothing [on screen] to reflect our proud reality. Instead, we have stories that show the black family as a total failure."
Reaction to "Precious," which was released Nov. 20 and has taken in $36 million at the box office, was stronger than to "Blind Side." That's probably because of the extremely bleak story in "Precious," in which the title character's life plays out like a dysfunctional and often stereotypical freak show. There she is, a dark child being raped by her shadowy father. There she is, not so much running as waddling out of an eatery, a stolen bucket of fried chicken in one hand. There she is, being taunted in her slum environs.
Harold Minor, 52, a financial manager who has worked extensively with mental-health professionals in the Twin Cities via Wilder Children and Family Services in St. Paul as well as NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in Minneapolis, said that, stereotypes aside, "Precious" is true-to-life.
"I think this is a great film that is doing a public service by exposing the mental-health dysfunction that's more common than what the general public knows," Minor said. "Precious' family has chronic unemployment, mental and physical abuse that's multigenerational.
"I can see why some folks might be embarrassed by that. But they shouldn't be. This kind of stuff is widespread. It's happening in the suburbs and in Boise, Idaho. It's just a matter of whether the treatment is paid for by the state or privately."
The films have led to spirited discussions in the blogosphere and in real-world gathering in salons and book-club meetings. The intense emotions, especially about "Precious," stir up long-dormant issues in the black community, in part because of the film's use of color-coded characters. The movie's victims and victimizers are dark-skinned; those offering salvation are fairer.
"The Blind Side" seems to generate less passion, in part because it fits into a model of films, including "Finding Forrester" and "Dangerous Minds," in which do-good whites rescue blacks from dreadful circumstances.
"The premise [of 'Blind Side'] left me cold," said John Wright, a professor of English and African-American studies at the University of Minnesota. "I think I'll wait for that one to come on TV. The struggle for African-Americans has been for respect and honor. But a work that's all about wallowing in black pain or pathology evokes only pity."
With relatively few major motion pictures made about black life, those that are released bear an added responsibility to offer balanced portrayals of the values of a community, said Lindy Vincent, an avid moviegoer who owns Moxie Fitness, a Minneapolis-based personal-training business.
"These images get transported around the world and then frame a narrative of who you are," Vincent said. "When I'm in Shanghai or Beijing and people are eyeing me up and down, I can't tell you what they're thinking, but I don't want 'Precious' to be playing in their heads."
Vincent said movies like "Good Hair," "Love and Basketball" and "Drumline" offered more balanced, slice-of-black-life narratives. She liked "Collateral," the 2004 film starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.
"Jamie Foxx was basically a hero," she said. "He got to think."
Vincent also pointed to "Milk," the film about the killing of gay San Francisco pol Harvey Milk, as a model. "Even though the central character is killed, there is positive, uplifting momentum at the end," she said. "With any type of black movie these days, all we seem to be getting is stuff that's unrelentingly negative. At Christmastime."
Many of those interviewed said that their criticism of "Precious" was not aimed at the artists -- writers, directors and actors.
"Mo'Nique will probably get an Oscar for this, and she deserves it," said Vincent, referring to the actor who played Precious' mother. "But, why do black actors only get recognition for characters that are so terrible? Halle Berry had to all but be a prostitute in 'Monster's Ball' and Denzel [Washington] had to be a cop killer in 'Training Day' to get that kind of honor."
Minor said that he wants others to see "Precious" as a wake-up call. For him, the story, however bleak, has a happy ending.
"There's hope at the end because the cycle of abuse and illiteracy is broken," he said. "Precious is a resilient, strong and very intelligent young woman, even though she was not educated. Children have an incredible capacity to adapt and grow. For me, the film has a ray of hope, even though it's not a walk off into the sunset."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390