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The Best Teaching Movie of 2009

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The Academy Awards seem to offer Oscars for everything imaginable, but they don't offer one for "Best Teaching Movie." This year there were not many potential nominees in this category. If there were a vote, I would cast my ballot for Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire.

There has been a lot of controversy over the way the movie portrays working-class and poor inner city Black life. Armond White, the chief film critic of The New York Press and the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, charged the movie was "full of brazenly racist clichés" and "demeaned the idea of black American life." On the other hand, Precious, produced by Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, was named outstanding motion picture at the 41st NAACP Image Awards.

I did not originally intend to see the movie. As a parent and a former high school teacher, and as a feminist, I do not enjoy movies where teenage girls are exploited as sexual objects or where teenagers teachers, and schools are demeaned. While I am not back, based on the previews, I shared Armond White's concern that the movie would reinforce racial stereotypes.

I was convinced to go see the movie by one of my former students, Brendalon Staton, who is an African American woman and a social studies teacher at Hempstead High School on Long Island, New York. In an email, Brendalon wrote:

I don't see anything wrong with the film 'Precious.' There are some selfish, jacked-up mothers and 'not fit to breathe' fathers in this world. Unfortunately innocent children are born to worthless people who inflict mental and physical pain on them. Tyler Perry had an alcoholic and abusive father; Oprah was raped by a relative; and Maya Angelou was sexually abused by a family friend. Three weeks ago a beautiful little five-year old girl was sold by her mother in a sex-for-drugs agreement, only to be killed shortly after by her mother's boyfriend.

Bendalon continued,

No one but a Black person can relate to being told by another Black person you're Black, ugly, stupid, and no one loves you. That's not racist. It's ignorance and self-hatred. There are a lot of issues in this film and they do need to be discussed. Precious was not facing Black problems, she was facing human problems. The same crap that was going on with her happens in homes of white families, Latino families, Christian families, and any other family. Look at the Mackenzie Phillips situation. She's not Black or poor. Her father destroyed the early years of life and her mother is still not owning up to her role in the abuse. She's not even acknowledging the abuse. For the record, the main actress of "Precious" is big, Black, and beautiful and there's nothing wrong with any of these things. I applaud her skill, passion, and intelligence. The message of this film was delivered when the main character said something along the lines of it's not where you start it's where you end. The truth hurts and people don't want to see reality. Well too bad. See it and hear it . . . before another child commits suicide.

Michael Chin, a student in one of my classes at Hofstra University, also strongly recommended that I see the movie. He wrote:

I saw Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire last night. I think you may want to see it ASAP. The film is from the perspective of the marginalized. It explores many of the themes you raise in your classes; e.g. the feminization of poverty, the sustenance of the African-American family by single-mothers, and supports William Julius Wilson's chapters on Welfare and the deterioration of the African-American family. You could use it in your teaching.

Based on Brendalon's and Michael's recommendations I saw Precious. First, it was a very well done move, although it was frequently painful to watch as someone who works with and cares about young people. Teachers often have students who are surly towards us or act out in class. It is hard not to just react to the disruption they cause. The great strength of this movie is that it shows how their behavior is rooted in the intense difficulty of their lives.

For me, the biggest problem with the movie is that it is a Cinderella story - a fairy tale and as such it is a little implausible. My wife compared Precious to Job, but it is the Oprah version of Job. Everything bad happens to Precious - rape, abuse, pregnancy, illiteracy, profound obesity, a child with Down's syndrome at age 13 (?), and finally HIV, but at the end she perseveres and has hope for the future. My major criticism is that what happens to Precious is caused by the degradation of the people around her, particularly her mother and father, but also social workers and teachers who don't act and just pass her along. The social conditions that created this world are never explored. The causes of the intense poverty, racism, and hopelessness that cause people to be this way are ignored.

I have given a lot of thought to how I would use Precious in a secondary school classroom. I think it fits best into the United States history curriculum when we would discuss race in contemporary America. As a rule, I don't like to show more than five-minute video clips during class time. In this case, I would ask students who have seen the movie to recommend five-minute segments and then have the class vote on which three segments we would play in class. After watching the clips, we would discuss the following questions: Who is to blame for what happens to Precious? Is it realistic to think that Precious can overcome her experiences? Is the movie's portrayal of black people racist? Ideally I would want to teach about this movie in a racially and ethnically diverse class. Unfortunately, the segregated nature of our schools, communities, and society would make this unlikely.

By the way, the acting was great. When I got home I had to look up on the Internet what part Mariah Carey played because she was unrecognizable. I felt both Monique, who plays the mother of Precious and is portrayed as a monster, and Mariah, should receive Academy Award nominations for supporting actress, but I thought Monique should win.