On Representation: Push versus Precious


The New York Times Magazine that made Precious actress Gabourey Sidibe a cover girl was almost a too-good-to-be-true moment. All at once, the world was a more inclusive place for people of dark complexions, ample body sizes and for people living in the shadows of the less visible differences her Precious character embodies. It’s crazy how powerful representation can be. I am a dark-complected, Harlem girl who has survived violence. And while it’s on the self indulgent side, I must admit: seeing that chocolate girl on that measly little cover with her pride held high made all the difference to me.
A few days remain until Precious debuts across the country on Nov. 6th. The story, originally told by Sapphire through the novel Push, is an ode to negotiating inclusion and exclusion in the media. It’s about much more than the New York Times‘ account: a “Harlem girl raped and impregnated by her abusive father.” (That’s practically all the ink dedicated to Precious the character despite an accompanying a column that extends for 5 pages.) It’s about inclusion and what it says about who is valuable in our society. That’s best captured in Push, when Precious explores this:

I am comp’tant. I was comp’tant enough for her [Precious' mother] husband to fuck. She ain’ come in here and say, Carl Kenwood Jones–thas wrong! Git off Precious like that! Can’t you see Precious is a beautiful chile like white chile in magazines or on toilet paper wrappers. Precious is a blue-eye skinny chile whose hair is long braids, long long braids. Git off Precious fool! It time for Precious to go to the gym like Janet Jackson. It time for Precious hair to braided.(64)

But what I love about the book is that Precious is not a defenseless subject. She is a survivor who resists against her exclusion by striving for her own inclusion. She does this by learning how to read. She then uses her literacy to read about the lives of Black women through writers such as Alice Walker, Ann Petry, Ann McGovern and others. The story ends with her literally penning her own story fully epitomizing the agency she had all along despite sexual trauma and despair.


Given how pivotal negotiating representation is to Push‘s rendering of Precious’ story, I was a little underwhelmed to notice one glaring discrepancy between a character in the book and a character in the movie. In the book, the description of Blue Rain, the half-messiah, half-educator that delivers Precious from the bondage of illiteracy and abuse is as follows: “She dark, got nice face, big eyes, and…long dreadlocky hair.” (39-40) This character in the movie is played by Paula Patton, a light-skinned African American woman with straightened hair. By no means do I doubt the talent of Patton, but it means something that the directors chose to cast one of the most central characters of the film against Sapphire’s original description.
While I have not seen the film yet, I am also interested to see how Blue Rain’s sexuality is framed. The book also reveals:

Ms Rain tell me I don’t like homosexuals she guess I don’t like her ’cause she one…Ms Rain say homos not who rape me, not homos who let me sit up not learn for sixteen years, not homos who sell crack fuck Harlem. It’s true. Ms Rain the one who put the chalk in my hand, make me queen of the ABCs.(83)

I have read several responses to the film and not once has anyone made mention of Blue Rain’s queer sexuality. I certainly hope Lee Daniels, director of Precious — a man who wore locs for years and self-identifies as gay — did not write Blue Rain’s sexuality out of the film the way he wrote out her color. If so, it will be a shame that America didn’t get to see these precious little identity details, these markers that allow us to decimate the tropes of the white savior story. The lightening and possible desexualizing of Blue rain simply adheres to this worn tattered script and is not in keeping with Sapphire’s call for inclusion through the vessel of Precious.

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33 Comments

  1. Tehanu
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I was lucky enough to see Precious at the Toronto International Film Festival — it won the Audience Choice Award, by the way! … and no, Blue Rain’s sexual orientation is far from written out. In fact, Precious’ reaction is very much like the passage quoted from the book (I haven’t read the book yet).
    Everyone should see that movie. It’s head and shoulders above the usual inspirational-teacher-saves-inner-city-kid, with far more depth, nuance and strength.
    But you need to psych yourself up for it, it’s wrenching on so many levels.

  2. plasticrose
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I don’t think it matters that Blue Rain is a little lighter than in the book. Paula Patton is still an African-American woman. Just because she has lighter skin and straight hair, doesn’t mean she’s automatically part of a white-saviour stereotype. Maybe she was just the best actress, and that was seen as more important and they thought it would be rather tactless to use makeup to make her look darker.
    I agree that if her sexuality had been written out, that would have gone against the message of the book. But one relatively small difference in a character’s physical appearance does not negate the whole message. If they used a blonde, blue-eyed Reese Witherspoon look-a-like I’d be raising questions but that is hardly the case.

  3. Mollie
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    It most definitely does matter.
    Google “colorism” and find out.

  4. Phenicks
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    It matters, a whoel helluva lot.
    Blue Rain was a dark woman with locs. If you jsut reread the OP you see what Precious though of dark people from the jump, they were worth FAR less than light people and much much much less than white people. Her mother also told her people with locs were nasty. Blue Rain represented the beautiful of everything her mother said was ugly, dark, locs, homosexual and they took everything except for Blue Rain’s sexuality out of the equation.
    It matters.

  5. Tracey T
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    The apparent colorism is really troubling. Before reading this I was not aware that of the character’s appearance in the book and was willing to give the casting agents, directors and writers the benefit of the doubt. Based on a preview I guessed there would be a conflict over the stereotypically pretty “for a black girl” woman telling one of the polar opposites of the beauty ideal she was beautiful. I thought that would be explored and Precious would challenge her about the statement along the lines of saying the teacher was in a different position.
    I am starting to realize I give benefit of a doubt to movies too much. Making the person who helps Precious achieve her goals fit beauty ideals is disheartening especially since they apparently did not feel the need to make a whole lot of alterations to the character of Precious’ mother (though, I would not exactly consider Mo’nique dark skinned).
    And Phenicks, co-sign. “Blue Rain represented the beautiful of everything her mother said was ugly, dark, locs, homosexual”

  6. Hara
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    When casting, you choose the best actors to work in your film. If the physicality of the character is important to the role, then of course you do your best to find the best actor who is available and will work with your budget.
    I can’t begin to convey what a miracle it is that the director managed to cast such great talent across the board. The film was made on a shoestring budget. It was not picked up by Harpo & Tyler Perry co.’s until after it had been shot and was gaining recognition on the festival circuit. Thank goodness those companies stepped up for the distribution.
    That money was not there during cast negotiations.
    The most important aspect of directing~ work with the best actors you can get.

  7. Phenicks
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    But they could ahve darkened her skin and given her a wig of locs. While its best to cast the best actress what sense would it hav made to cast someone who is barely brown and a size 12 as Precious?
    The physical appearance of the teacher was a very important aspect fo the book, Precios had to get over a LOT about her own prejudices to even allow Blue Rain to have the effect on her that she had.
    Another thing, in the book- Blue Rain didn’t take any crap. I have a feeling that’s been changed too.

  8. Jesus Christine
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting how the beauty standard seems to come into play, even with a major film that breaks this many rules. The Bluest Eye taught me a couple of things, and one of those was that amongst multiple cultures, good women and girls have light skin and pretty faces. Ms Rain seems to fit this sort of messiah view: slender, perfect teeth, preferred, more “caucasian” facial features.
    It’s important to remember, for me, that Hollywood is not used to promoting a character like Precious. Even the steps that this director has taken are pretty enormous. I do hope, though, that sexuality is not ignored in this film, seeing how economic divides foster so much homophobia and it is something that should be addressed. And even though compromises were probably made in the appearance of the actors to make it more palatable for mainstream culture, I agree with others; the more that this light and slender look for women is shown in movies, the harder it is to reverse this myth.
    I want to read this book really badly. Bad and good news: I put a hold on it at my library a month ago and it’s still not available.

  9. Jesus Christine
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting how the beauty standard seems to come into play, even with a major film that breaks this many rules. The Bluest Eye taught me a couple of things, and one of those was that amongst multiple cultures, good women and girls have light skin and pretty faces. Ms Rain seems to fit this sort of messiah view: slender, perfect teeth, preferred, more “caucasian” facial features.
    It’s important to remember, for me, that Hollywood is not used to promoting a character like Precious. Even the steps that this director has taken are pretty enormous. I do hope, though, that sexuality is not ignored in this film, seeing how economic divides foster so much homophobia and it is something that should be addressed. And even though compromises were probably made in the appearance of the actors to make it more palatable for mainstream culture, I agree with others; the more that this light and slender look for women is shown in movies, the harder it is to reverse this myth.
    I want to read this book really badly. Bad and good news: I put a hold on it at my library a month ago and it’s still not available.

  10. Jesus Christine
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting how the beauty standard seems to come into play, even with a major film that breaks this many rules. The Bluest Eye taught me a couple of things, and one of those was that amongst multiple cultures, good women and girls have light skin and pretty faces. Ms Rain seems to fit this sort of messiah view: slender, perfect teeth, preferred, more “caucasian” facial features.
    It’s important to remember, for me, that Hollywood is not used to promoting a character like Precious. Even the steps that this director has taken are pretty enormous. I do hope, though, that sexuality is not ignored in this film, seeing how economic divides foster so much homophobia and it is something that should be addressed. And even though compromises were probably made in the appearance of the actors to make it more palatable for mainstream culture, I agree with others; the more that this light and slender look for women is shown in movies, the harder it is to reverse this myth.
    I want to read this book really badly. Bad and good news: I put a hold on it at my library a month ago and it’s still not available.

  11. tigolbitties
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    also, to add to phenicks’ reply – implicit in your statement is your assumption that there must not have been any talented darker skinned actresses for the role. If Lee Daniels could take a chance on a first-time actress for the LEAD, surely to cast Blue Rain as she was in the book would not have been a problem.

  12. Jesus Christine
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Sorry about the triple posting.

  13. Hara
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    No, that is not what I said.
    My point:
    Casting is an arduous task. It is not easy, especially with limited funds and no studio backing.
    I am not saying there are no actresses of any shade at every skill and talent level, I am saying casting is a difficult process. I personally, as a short film director, and one who has produced, production supervised, production managed, line produced and worked in the AD dept-
    give the director and producers of this film slack for the choice they made in casting that particular role.
    There is so much that goes nto choosing the right actor for the right role.
    In my short film, when I found the right actor for the protagonist, he was so great, that I changed the character to better fit him as an actor!
    The chemistry between lead & that actor was exceptional! It took us in a different direction.
    That Push / Precious was made into a film at all is a HUGE achievement.
    The director has not made one single blockbuster as a director.
    His only box office success as a producer, by investors standards, was Monsters Ball. I can guarantee you, when he went out looking for funds, he was asked about getting Halle Barry attached.
    This is a character driven drama, with an AA, female, lead.
    There are very few made these days and even fewer get seen.

  14. Hara
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    No, that is not implicit – that is what you are ignorantly assuming.
    In my comment I attempt to shed light on the process the director and producers go through while casting.
    You’re choosing to see it differently.
    Having lived in NOLA and raised children (of more than one shade) there, I am all tooooooooo aware of the shades issue.
    I hope you’ll join in the film industry and get to the point where you can direct.
    If/ when you do, you’ll learn that the most important thing you can do for the story is cast the best fit-
    that is based on chemistry, energy, talent and skill- physical appearance is often last on the list of what makes a person perfect for a role in a character driven drama.

  15. Hara
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    The most important thing you can do for the story is cast the best fit-
    that is based on chemistry, energy, talent and skill- physical appearance is often last on the list of what makes a person perfect for a role in a character driven drama.
    You are critiquing a film you haven’t seen. Perhaps you should watch the film and see if it maintains the stories integrity before slamming the directors choices.
    I wonder if anyone has thought to ask the director about the casting process for this film? Are there any interviews out there that ask about casting?
    If you have IMDB Pro, you can get his agents name and contact info and send a letter, a question, even ask for an interview.
    Who knows, he may have had 12 other actresses lined up, all darker skinned and with locs, who passed on the film. It’s a question worth asking.
    I suggest watching the film first, of course.

  16. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Actually it matters a whole hell of a lot.
    There is a long sad history of African Americans being “colorstruck” – and, based on the trailers, this film falls right into that trap, with the “victim” and “villain” characters (Precious and her mother) being heavyset darkskinned women and the “heroes” being extremely lightskinned and very skinny women (one of them, the character played by Mariah Carey, is so lightskinned that she actually appears to be Caucasian).
    Would the directors have cast skinny lightskinned actresses to play Precious and her mother and heavy darkskinned actresses to play the teacher and the social worker?
    Considering that this film is largely going to be seen by White “art house” audiences, the film’s blatant pandering to colorism is even more damaging, not to mention the whole “poverty porn” aspect of the movie, and the way the film other-izes poor African Americans.

  17. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    So, there are no talented darkskinned actresses who could have been cast as the teacher and the social worker?
    I’m sorry, this film panders to the worst kind of colorism. Beyond that, it would be bad enough if only members of our race were going to see this picture, but upscale White “art house” audience are going to see this movie too, and will take in it’s message that heavyset darkskinned women are bad people – or, at best, helpless victims – and can only be saved by skinny lightskinned women with Caucasian features and long straight hair.
    In other words, anti Black racism, produced and directed by Black people, and presented to White audiences as if it is “the truth” of how our community is.

  18. Tracey T
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I would buy this argument if and only if when it came to Hollywood the “best actor” didn’t almost always mean white/conventionally attractive. I find it hard to believe that is pure coincidence and colorism and racism don’t play a huge part in who gets roles. The movies 21 and Avatar come to mind.
    Hollywood and even smaller productions have too long a history of only casting black women that meet a certain criteria (ligh, straightened hair, thin, etc.) as attractive/desirable where as darker skinned/fat black women are often portrayed in a way to make them seem comical,ugly, desperate,negative. I refuse to believe for a second that it is simply a coinccidence. Especially given the length they went to too find an actor for Precious that could embody the role.
    Decisions like this do not occur in a vacuum, and when there are a great deal of darker-skinned black women with natural hair (who aren’t “thin”) being shown as love interests/positive role models, thenI may buy instances such as these as coincidences. Until then, the film making industry is full of it when it comes to colorism/racism and their back-bending excuses.

  19. Phenicks
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    And what does ANY of that have to do with making Paula Patton darker and having her wear a wig of locs?
    I can tell you right now COUNTLESS actors have beefed up, tanned, packed on pounds, got haircuts, grew their hair out, wore wigs and some of them have been lightened or darkened to better fit the physical appearance of the role.
    I ask again, why was this not done here? I don’t have to see the movie to tell you that Blue Rain’s color, hair and sexuality were pertinent. I read the book the entire film is based on. Without the book there would not have been a movie in the first place. Lee Daniels ADMITS to his own colorism right from the start in his own words in an interview regarding th emovie.
    So what does WHO the actor is have to do with WHAT the actor looks like when you have makeup, wigs and special effects readily available? He changed nothing and that is problematic.

  20. ElleStar
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    This is going to be a weird nitpick, but the movie Avatar is coming out this winter and is directed by James Cameron and is about aliens or something. The movie you’re referring to is The Last Airbender and it comes out next summer, is directed by M. Night Shamalan, and has cast white kids in roles that are obviously not originally white.
    Sorry, I just wanted to clear that up because I was confused for a month about why they were casting ADULTS into Avatar. (Apparently James Cameron came up with the movie idea years ago, and even though he knew about Avatar: The Last Airbender coming into existence and becoming a movie, too, he decided he was going to keep his original title.)

  21. Hara
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    This was not a big “Hollywood” film, it was an independent film that was eventually purchased for distribution.

  22. Hara
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    first of all, unless you have a great M/u artist and the exceptional DP, that is going to look hokey.
    You are thinking of films with much bigger budgets when you assume that it would look great or even convincing and not pull the viewer out of the story.
    Remember the actor in Perry’s, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”
    I was totally distracted by the actors Fake assed braids- his hair don’t pulled me right out of that story.
    I haven’t seen the film yet, the book stunned me, and I have lived through and witnessed some bad shit.
    I’m preparing myself for the film, making sure I have the next day off to process.
    I haven’t seen the so called “light skinned” actress that is the subject of these comments.
    I simply empathize with the Director, having gone thru the casting process and turning my AA character into a “mixed” character, based on who I was able to cast as both the lead and her daughter. Not that there weren’t actors of every shade known to humanity, but, what lined up perfectly for my film was not what I had originally had in mind. I also mentioned that the protagonist completely changed as well, based on what happened while casting.
    A film is not ever going to be exactly like a book. I understand the desire to have the character be darker skinned and with natural hair, that point os not lost on me-
    again,
    the film making process is just so complicated- it feels like a miracle when anything that isn’t Transformers stupidity actually gets made.
    I do not think it was his intention to specifically hire an actress with straight hair and a shade or 2 lighter skin. If it was, then yes, he needs to take a look in the mirror and memorize some Gwendolyn Brooks poetry.

  23. Hara
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    please see the comment response to pheniks
    http://www.feministing.com/archives/018679.html#comment-313795

  24. Hara
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Have you read the book?
    Seen the film?
    The most important thing is to convey the story.
    When you’re casting, it goes beyond physicality and includes chemistry, energy, availability…there are thousands of actors and you just have to hope and pray that the right one, the one who fits just so, steps into the role and nails it. So many different factors go into who is cast in an independent film.
    The film is NEVER exactly like the book, however, from what I’ve heard, this film tells the story well.
    That is all you can hope for in film making- to tell the story well and reach a wide audience.
    People are walking out of the theater totally stunned and going on and on about how great the lead actress is.
    If that is not a triumph,I don’t know what is- &
    I double dog dare you to do better.

  25. lizh
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    I love this website and all the information i get out of it. And not once have i gotten upset over what was written (obviously)
    …However, for this post, before writing “Harlem girl raped and impregnated by her abusive father.” it would have been nice to put a little spoiler alert. I have not read the book and was excited to see the movie. But now a major part was ruined for me

  26. lizh
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    I love this website and all the information i get out of it. And not once have i gotten upset over what was written (obviously)
    …However, for this post, before writing “Harlem girl raped and impregnated by her abusive father.” it would have been nice to put a little spoiler alert. I have not read the book and was excited to see the movie. But now a major part was ruined for me

  27. lizh
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    I love this website and all the information i get out of it. And not once have i gotten upset over what was written (obviously)
    …However, for this post, before writing “Harlem girl raped and impregnated by her abusive father.” it would have been nice to put a little spoiler alert. I have not read the book and was excited to see the movie. But now a major part was ruined for me

  28. lizh
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 2:20 am | Permalink

    I love this website and all the information i get out of it. And not once have i gotten upset over what was written (obviously)
    …However, for this post, before writing “Harlem girl raped and impregnated by her abusive father.” it would have been nice to put a little spoiler alert. I have not read the book and was excited to see the movie. But now a major part was ruined for me

  29. roxie
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I saw this movie last night. It is excellent & everyone should see it.
    The realization of Blue’s sexuality in the movie reads slightly differently than it does in the book. The passage quoted is nearly verbatim with the one we hear in the movie with a slight variation
    “I wonder what my mother would say about Ms Rain? I say homos not who rape me, not homos who let me sit up not learn for sixteen years, not homos who sell crack fuck Harlem. It’s true. Ms Rain the one who put the chalk in my hand, make me queen of the ABCs.”
    So they make it Precious coming to this realization and not Ms Rain telling her anything. And there is never any doubt that Precious adores Ms Rain

  30. i_muse
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    That tagline is on the IMDB page, wiki, etc.
    It’s everywhere. Read the book, see the movie, that tag line wont spoil it for you.
    Prepare to blown away by the book and/or the film.
    Seriously, clear the rest of your day, it’s a heavy duty story.

  31. i_muse
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    this film comes from the independent film world.
    The same world that gave us, Frozen River, the Visitor, Namesake, the Station Agent, Towelhead, etc.
    It is clear that there are not nearly enough women working in the film industry. From development to on set P.A.’s there are simply too few of us. There are some feminist men, however, their voices are easily squashed by the misogynists in their midst when there are literally no women there to speak up and create via the medium.
    I hope more will consider it as a career path, go to school, intern and then
    when the time comes to work in the industry, do not allow yourself to be pushed into the make-up and hair or wardrobe dept. Do not let them make you the script supervisor. Fight to continue writing if you’re a writer, fight to direct if you have that in you, fight to Produce, PM, AD, Gaff (Lighitng), DP (Cinematographer/Director of Photog), be a Key Grip!
    Get in there and do it!
    Then and only then will we see the significant change we are obviously aching for!
    And it wont happen over night, cause even once you’re in there, you have to fight the money people and let me tell you-
    Money people did not believe in this film until after it won awards!
    You have no idea how hard it is to make a movie like this.
    I don’t know these film makers, but, I am darn proud of them.
    Even if they did cast a great actress who has straight hair and may be a shade lighter than the one in the book. The lead is spot on! So much is spot on! and most importantly, it stands on it’s own as a story. The film does, even if you never read the book, you’ll get the story from the film.

  32. Kristen
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Lizh I can 100% honestly say that there is so much more to this book than that one line. Yes the sexual abuse is central to a lot of what Precious goes through and deals with, however there is so much more. Please still read the book- and prepare yourself for a very, very intense “story.”

  33. Xandra
    Posted November 8, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I completely agree with you Tracey T. The same people saying it doesn’t matter would be the first ones complaining when they cast a White person to play a Black person.
    Like you said, it’s always a fairer skinned person who plays the roles of savior or hero. If that changes, then this won’t be an issue.

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