Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Aren’t we forgetting someone? On Ms. Raines in “Precious”

I have a new post at Global Comment

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“Precious,” based on the novel Push by Sapphire, tells the tale of Claireece “Precious” Jones, an illiterate, dark skinned, fat, Black teenager who is a survivor of physical, emotional and sexual violence. Though the majority of abuse happens off-screen, the film is vivid enough to make the viewer want to dive into Precious’ escape fantasies just to side-step the realization of how horrifying her life is.

Several supporting characters help Precious negotiate her miserable existence. Ms. Raines, played by Paula Patton, is a teacher at the Reach One Teach One alternative school. Precious is sent to the school after she is forced to admit that she is pregnant again — by her father. Precious’ condition is the result of being abused from the age of three. Ms. Raines is one of the few who comes to know the stark reality of the girl’s situation and is able to play a major role in the healing process. At first, the interaction between Ms. Raines and Precious seems very reminiscent of the popular tale of a straitlaced teacher saving a child from the ghetto. This story has been popularized in films like “Stand and Deliver,” “Lean on Me,” “To Sir with Love,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Freedom Writers,” etc.

In each of the above instances, the teachers are straight and cisgender, thus serving as a normalizing force in the lives of their students. The message that they convey is meant to uplift their students, yet encoded within the lesson of the importance of striving for change is the admonition that to improve one’s life, a student must adhere to a strict definition of “normalcy.” Much like in real life schools, conformity is part of the agenda.

When Precious gains the courage to leave her mother, she breaks into the Reach one Teach One School to wait for Ms. Raines. Instinctively, she knows that this woman is the only one with the ability and desire to help her. Unable to find suitable accommodations for Precious and her child, Ms. Raines takes her into her home, where Precious learns that Ms. Raines is a lesbian. When we consider that African Americans have recently been painted as uniquely homophobic, what takes place in the film at this point is quite significant. Not only does this challenge the idea of homophobia as being inherent to African Americans, it provides a visible representation of Black Lesbianism, something that’s regularly ignored by the media.

Upon realizing that her teacher is a lesbian, Precious says to herself:

“Mama says homos is bad people. But Mama, homos ain’t ones who rape me and what do that make you? Homos aren’t ones who let me sit in class all them years and never learn nothing and Homos not ones who sell crack to people in Harlem. I wonder what Oprah got to say about that? Ms. Raines is the one who put the chalk in my hand, make me clearer the ABC’s.”

Even with all of the negativity in her life, Precious does not reach into the master’s tool box to oppress someone to obtain a minimal form of power for herself. To Precious, Ms. Raines is more than her sexuality, she is the woman who shines a light for all to find a way out of the darkness.

Finish reading here