04/13/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shades of Praise and Prejudice for the Movie Precious

Recently I had the idea to bring to our school children opportunities to express prejudices and fears about those they bully or scapegoat. The idea is that, in general, the more we open up in safe places about our true biases, the more we can be open to experiencing empathy for our own and others' underlying feelings and real experience.

The racial divide in our country is clearly more pervasive than individual acts of bullying, but similar dynamics are involved. Hatred and victimization are held firmly in place by ongoing acts of violence and little acknowledgment of the depth and breadth of all that separates us.

Any work of art, film or music which evokes imagery and feeling that might provoke deeper awareness of our differences and similarities, can make a dent in the usual lack of dialogue. Unfortunately the current movie "Precious" is provoking even harsher judgment in the uproar produced by critics that seem to have the need to see every expression as a morality play rather than an opening to a conversation.

The recent diatribe by author Ishmael Reed in his New York Times Op-Ed piece "Fade to White" exacerbates this furor. Reed sees the film "Precious" as white exploitation, overgeneralization, and indignity to black men because one character is portrayed as an incest rapist of his own daughter. True, in the film, some of the characters are poor, victimized, on welfare, and Black -- as it goes in the world outside the theaters.

White people have not yet taken offense at Tennessee Williams because of his morbid portrayal of white depravity nor seen it as having a deleterious effect on white reputation. We have lots of white folk whose actions, sexual and reactionary, make up the theater of our political scene. And for laughs, we have Sarah Palin.

The points here are a few. If we are to pretend to address the causes and effects of racism, while shading it less starkly than it really is, then we will serve to hide it further. And furthermore, evidence of Black poverty, school deficiencies, etc., is also evidence of white neglect and indifference; the same racism that makes New Yorkers love Rudy Giuliani for cleaning up the streets they visit while doing little for poorer people -- for Black people who form a big part of the poorer population.

If white people make speeches about the crimes committed against poor people, why not? But, before we become enamored by the self-congratulatory attitude of white people towards people of darker skin, we just have to look at the Sudan, Rwanda and even Haiti. There is nothing wrong with giving, but if it makes us feel good to give abroad while we dismiss the poorer populations within our own country, then it is part of our shame, or should be.

Would Reed prefer a white film of degradation and incest from around the same corners or from the hills of Appalachia? They exist, and there are others that we can manufacture, since the crimes against humanity exist in white arenas, in different accents, but in violence which is similar to all violence.

The more we attempt to control artistic expression based on what is taught in any given film, the more we demean everyone and refuse the viewer his/her own imagination, experience of being provoked or inspired. When films or works of art are charged with "moral education," we are in trouble because once we mandate instruction-only, we cross the border into dictated taste and one version or vision of every story.

Is the purpose, for example, of Black History Month to ignore or deny the insidious effects of slavery and segregation as it has evolved into our time? I didn't think so. And if it is being used, as so many elements of our society are, to promote racial stereotypes, why don't we discuss and debate and not further a war of silence or of mandated opinions?

Art should jolt and provoke, not teach us every word of "truth." It should take us into imagination and fantasy or to what might have been, or to what could be, or else it stops being art and is only propaganda.

I have begun to learn, with some help from the author Tim Wise (White Like Me), that White people -- if we are to make any progress in the realm of racism -- have the obligation to digest our role in history and in the continual perpetuation of racism from which we benefit in a myriad of ways.

Those who go to see the film "Precious" and feel their consciences appeased are like those who went to see "An Inconvenient Truth" and felt that just by viewing it they had taken action on climate change. Many people do that with film, theatre, as well as all the magazines, newspapers and blogs they read on a daily basis. They ask, "Did you hear?" And the ensuing gossip easily takes the place of real dialogue, caring, or identification with all the players in any of the stories in our world.

It may be considered too politically correct or maudlin to admit that in the portrayal of the girl Precious, I saw a primal tenderness of mother and child that moved me. I felt the gentleness in her beginning bonding with others and her very own self. Her dignity inspired me.

We can use everything we experience to further either our exploitation or our deepening of feeling and connectivity. Use the film to hate, and we lose the opportunity of exploring inside and out. The tension produced by the film is worth knowing better.

I liked the film "Precious" a lot, and I think it's worth talking about.

By Carol Smaldino, CSW