Friday, April 12, 2013


To call Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009) a deeply moving story of personal triumph over adversity would be to sell short its blistering performances as well as its emotional impact. Likewise, to call the film an exercise in racial and class stereotypes would be to underestimate precisely how offensive and potentially destructive its ramifications might be in terms of how it represents particular groups of people.  Just as the film appears to fearlessly grapple with difficult and serious issues affecting children and disenfranchised communities (illiteracy, obesity, education, incest, sexual abuse, social services, etc.), it simultaneously denigrates African-Americans, women, and the poor as a grim and exaggerated fabrication of 1980s life in the ghetto. On its surface, Precious is a moving drama about one young girl’s personal and difficult transformative journey. On further examination, the film’s dichotomies emphasize the importance of appreciating the difference between what a work is and what it does.
Primarily, as an article of commercial entertainment, what Precious does is inspire its audience by telling a story of the strength of the human spirit emerging triumphant through the most severe and extreme adverse circumstances. In doing so, however, it also simultaneously paints a picture of the poor as cruel and violent; ignorant, immoral and deceitful villains; child-rapists, thieves, welfare-scammers, neglectful parents, and uncaring scoundrels.  Precious complicates its own indictment of the poor by conflating representations of poverty with representations of blackness and pathology.                                  

Generating controversy to encourage commercial success is a filmmaking tradition, and in that practice, Daniels leaves no stone unturned and no envelope un-pushed. The very conditions that may be an affront to the viewer are the same conditions that may compel the viewer to become emotionally invested in the film.  Is Daniels a skilled cinematic craftsman or a flamboyant hack? Does dramatic license allow the use of racial stereotypes in a persuasive strategy at the expense of a group’s representation? It would be unthinkable to accept Precious as a significant, or even legitimate film had it been made by a white filmmaker. Daniels, being African-American, is given a much broader margin of freedom in being able to exploit ethnic and cultural clichés without incurring charges of racism. Nevertheless, a number of his directorial choices strongly reinforce negative categorizations that already exist against poor and black communities.

Expressly problematic is Daniels’ approach of having the villains of Precious be dark skinned, while the film’s heroes are light skinned or of mixed race.  Certainly, having the bad guys wear black and the good guys wear white is a storytelling trope that dates back to the initiation of projected film and before, but does it remain practical to continue to institute this device when there is so much at stake to one particular cultural collective? This method might make it easier for an audience to identify, consciously or not, which characters might be trusted and which characters might pose a threat. Playing to and exploiting this oftentimes subconscious, shameful and unfortunate institution of skin color discrimination within the black community seems especially unethical and negligent in light of the content of this particular film.   
Of course, owing to the nature of cultural hegemony and the way dominant ideology insidiously seeps into a culture’s collective unconscious, Daniels’ casting decisions may not have been necessarily malicious, but might perhaps be a reflection of his own personal perception of whom he may identify as dangerous and threatening, or whom he may identify as comforting and safe. Nonetheless, given the attention to detail that is paid to every scene in the film, the predominant message that darker-skinned people are untrustworthy and dangerous, and that lighter-skinned people are protective and safe remains loathsome and indefensible.    
The filmmakers’ attention to this message of light versus dark, particularly as it relates to skin color, is so painstaking as to have Mary, Precious’ odious, abusive mother, wear light makeup in the penultimate scene, as if her intention is to appear kinder or more “acceptable” to the social worker. This character’s action to lighten her appearance speaks directly to the internalized racism and self-hatred cultivated by cultural hegemony.      
As questionable and irresponsible as perpetuating these hegemonic messages may be, Daniels uses them to dramatic advantage, making Precious a sensationalistic powerhouse of a film. In the same way that, in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino coupled popular references with depraved violence to make probing social commentary about our culture’s relationship to violence, Daniels attempts to take dramatic and larger-than-life approaches to some of the more difficult issues in Precious. The crucial difference between the two being that Tarantino’s films primarily deal with white gangsters, drug dealers, and petty criminals; familiar characters belonging to groups whose power and dominance are neither threatened nor underrepresented, while Daniels’ drama hinges on the experiences of a vulnerable member of an underrepresented, near invisible subordinate group (female, obese, illiterate, abused), whose exploitation results in consequences of social misrepresentation.                                                                                                   
The film is fraught with disturbing imagery that reinforces strongly held cultural prejudices indicting subordinate groups as responsible for their own dilemmas. Daniels cuts from a scene of Precious being incestuously raped to pigs’ feet sizzling in a pan full of grease. The girl is not only equated to a piece of meat, but cheap, unhealthy, often discarded meat. Are we to reason that Precious’ lack of self-care, self-control, intelligence, ambition or motivation may be partly to blame for how she is mistreated? She doesn’t only eat an entire bucket of fried chicken – she steals it. The implication that a child’s worth is contingent on her height/weight proportionality, intellect, or moral conduct is troubling.   

Especially disturbing is how Precious in turn mistreats the little girl who lives in her building – illustrating that abusive behavior is learned and repeated. Precious is eventually absolved of her atrocious treatment of the girl (by passing on her magical orange scarf to the child), but only after her miraculous transformation from victim of monstrous motherhood to loving and nurturing mother herself.    
Seeing the young girl, her face bruised, accompanying her mother in the social services waiting area, suggests that child abuse is not an isolated offense, but rather a commonplace practice specific to the community portrayed in Precious. This aspect of the story, which was most certainly meant to have been inspirational: the passing on of the magical scarf of possibility, the brave breaking of the chain of abuse – wouldn’t be so irresponsible and offensive had Daniels countered these atrocities by showing examples of loving families and parents within the same community, but that balance wasn’t represented.   

Perhaps most reprehensible is the libertarian wet dream fantasy ending message of Precious that anyone, regardless of personal circumstances (semi-illiterate, abused, obese, saddled with two infants, diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, whatever) has the ability to pull themselves out of the morass of their unfortunate surroundings and overcome life’s most challenging obstacles if only they have enough self-reliance and motivation to do so. This misleading dogma of personal responsibility removes all onus from more fortunate viewers to take any action to help better the lives of those less fortunate than themselves, just as it gives false hope to anyone tormented by their luckless and tragic conditions. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

radiant child

The disquieting and uncomfortably titled, "27 Club" consists of an unfortunate group of exclusive celebrities who died at age 27: Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse. Not being a musician, Jean-Michel Basquiat is an unusual entry; he died from a heroin overdose in 1988.

I returned for a second contemplation of the Basquiat exhibit at the Gagosian gallery in Chelsea last week. While my first visit left me with a crisp and concrete response to what the young painter might have been trying to convey in his works, I went away from my second visit more than a little befuddled by what was being presented, and also somewhat sad.

Brooklyn-born, Jean-Michel Basquiat was son to an Afro-Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father. He grew up speaking, reading, and writing in English, Spanish, and French fluently. In the second half of the 1970s, Basquiat found fame (or infamy) as SAMO©, graffiti-ing buildings around Soho and downtown Manhattan. He participated in a group show in 1981, and was then featured in an article in Artforum magazine, which brought him to the attention of the art world. While at first glance some of his paintings may seem gimmicky or amateurishly higgledy-piggledy, at his best, Jean-Michel Basquiat's work ranks among the most original of his generation - maybe even of his century. 

After 1960s Pop Art championed celebrity and the commodification of the mundane, and after the sterile rigidity of 1970s minimalism, it seems Basquiat's multicultural New York-ishness, his energy and his anger were exactly what the art world thirsted for. He exploded onto the scene. His work and his personality - synonymous in a way that might only be compared with Andy Warhol's art/persona - shot to fame like a juggernaut. His gritty, Afro-centric, hurried, and agitated paintings began fetching exorbitant prices on the international art market. Unusual and impressive for an artist so young. Particularly notable for an African-American artist of any age.

This legendary and fast-burning superstar of the art world has been examined and reexamined in books, documentaries, films, and numerous retrospectives. What new insights could possibly be shared that haven't been considered before? And why reconsider his work and position now? What biting parallels might be drawn from his time and ours? The current landscape of unparalleled economic disparity, emerging class warfare, poverty, and an industrial prison complex that feeds itself on African-American and immigrant communities would have undoubtedly been fertile material for Basquiat's sharp and caustic voice.

In the 1980s, Punk Rock was being infused with a New Wave dance beat, clubs like Danceteria and Pyramid were spitting out celebrities, fashion trends, and artists that were making an indelible impact all over the globe. African-American neighborhoods in Mayor Koch's New York were being ravaged by crack, and corrupt police tactics were responsible for the deaths of graffiti artist, Michael Stewart and senior citizen, Eleanor Bumpers. AIDS was also beginning to take its devastating toll on the arts communities, especially in New York City. The landscape was rich with inspiration for Basquiat's unrestrained talent.

All the excitement, danger, inequity, and corruption of his generation are evident in the large unwieldy canvases (and boards, and slatted panels, and other salvaged materials) hung about Gagosian's sprawling, sun-drenched Chelsea gallery. Basquiat painted on a large scale, and each piece practically screams at the viewer with urgency and compulsivity. Whether his unique blend of compulsive obsession and urgency was motivated by his need for expression or the alarming prices his paintings were demanding (or both) may remain unknown. The result, however, is that he seems to have created his own artistic language; fusing painting, drawing, collage, and poetry to produce a distinct and vibrant historiogrphy of his experience as a young black man in a world dominated by the aristocracy of a privileged white few. His sharp jabs at an unfair hierarchical dominance are as much a commentary on the political landscape as on those who ruled the art world. An unlikely champion, he remained uncensored and biting in his narrative of black history, subjugation, injustice, and white dominance. 


Incorporating iconography in his work: African masks, crowns, cars, cops, skyscrapers, etc., Basquiat consistently represented his own heritage and life experience in his work. In Eyes and Eggs (1983), measuring an impressive 9x10 feet, a black short order cook is dressed in a white cap and coat, he holds a frying pan with two eggs in it, mirroring his eyes, and he wears a name tag, which reads, "Joe." It is both cartoonish and sad - a nod to a generation of working class African-Americans who came before him, and a simultaneous spit in the eye to the collectors and agents of the art world who have reduced generations of hard-working people to fetishistic collectibles. Joe's mouth appears almost sealed with a diffused white swipe across the bottom side of his face - he's seen but not heard; in a position of servitude and voiceless. And if this cartoonish homage weren't enough to deliver a stern gut-punch, there are black sneaker treads all over the canvas, underscoring how an entire history has been walked on. 

Prolific in his few short years of work, Basquiat got darker and more self-reflective in his paintings, perhaps paralleling his descent into addiction; the later canvases less frenetic and politically accusatory - more contemplative. There are larger areas of negative space, less use of primary colors and more use of subtle hues and metallics. Still present are the triple tracks of toothy grins and the seemingly arbitrary dismembered body parts, but also transparent compartments in alien looking figures; an intricate constellation of goings-on where a lung would normally belong, for example. 

Riding with Death (1988), is a striking departure from the busy-ness of his earlier works; a large almost empty canvas with a background awash in metallic silver/green supports a figure riding atop the suggestion of a minimal and deconstructed skeleton. It is plaintive and elegiac; a prescient treatise of ambition, drug addiction, money, and celebrity. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat had a lot to say, and he said it in exciting and never before seen ways that tore away boundaries between New York City nightlife, the art world, and the streets. I left the gallery space sorrowful and curious as to what we might have seen from a more calm and seasoned Basquiat - grieving the unrealized potential of what might have been had this wild and unbridled boy been allowed to mature and settle into adulthood without the pressures of fame, expectation, and drug addiction.