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'Precious' and 'Blind Side' on our social ills

Moviegoers and commentators alike have noticed the similarities between two of the 10 films being considered for the Academy Award for best picture this year. "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" and "The Blind Side" both tackle the disenfranchisement and despair of black youth struggling with broken families.

"Precious" is the story of Claireece Jones, who's known as Precious, a downtrodden teenage victim of emotional, sexual and physical violence. "The Blind Side" is the real-life story of an NFL player, Michael Oher, another teenage victim of poverty and neglect. Both Precious and Michael are overweight, socially awkward, ashamed, withdrawn and seemingly unable to perform academically. Both offer blank stares into space and monosyllabic, mumbled answers in response to questions from teachers and social workers. Both are African-American, poor, and born into a cycle of addiction and abuse. They are the children of mothers inevitably portrayed as drug addicts and "welfare cheats."

In short, theirs are the kind of sad stories that have long been fodder for national debates about the success or failure of government programs. These are debates about the size of government, and whether we should focus on social programs or individual responsibility - as if those choices have to be mutually exclusive.

Both films share an unspoken opinion about just how to "save" the lost Precious girls and "Big Mikes" of the world. And the answer, each film argues in its own way, is not government, welfare, social workers or foster homes.

As a cultural reporter who, for years, reviewed films about race and social issues, I normally would never have fallen for this kind of overt ideological pandering to right-wing conservatism - the kind of thinking that says the solution to all social ills is simply to change the bad behavior of impoverished minorities themselves.

And yet, in watching these movies, I was struck by the fact that the right may have a point. While it's true that many right-wing social conservatives tend to oversimplify these issues - stripping them of all compassion and historical context - it is also true that sometimes the best individual solutions come from individual people. By reaching out to fix what's broken right in front of us, even on a small scale, we are the ones who create a context in which miracles can happen.

Because even though government intervention may provide a path for her escape from abuse, what ultimately saves Precious is the behavior of specific people. Namely, it's the deep bond and trust that develops between her and her new teacher, Blu Rain ("Ms. Rain"), at the "alternative school" Precious attends with other troubled teens.

In the 1996 novel that is the basis for the film, the author describes Precious' reaction to her new school as a feeling, "something like birds or light fly through my heart." Her feet stop. All is quiet. Suddenly, she is amazed to realize that she is sitting in the front row of a classroom, for the first time in her life.

"Open your notebook, Precious," says Ms. Rain, at a critical point in the film. "I'm tired," answers Precious, who has just found out that she has contracted AIDS from her father, who has repeatedly raped and impregnated her. "I know you are," says Ms. Rain, "but you can't stop now Precious. You gotta push."

And so it is Ms. Rain, who is also African-American, who brings Precious home to share the holidays with her and her lesbian lover - opening her heart to the student so completely that Precious can't help wondering, "How is it possible that these women who hardly know me, love me more than my own mother and father?"


Similarly, "The Blind Side" offers up a moving, unsentimental portrait of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a politically conservative, white Southerner from Memphis.

"Do you have any place to stay tonight?" she asks Michael, who is wearing only a T-shirt and cutoff pants when her family's SUV crosses paths with him on a cold, rainy night.

He nods yes. In truth he has been homeless for much of his life, making his way between foster homes and friends' couches, and changing schools about once a year.

"Don't you dare lie to me," says Tuohy firmly, ushering him into the car. At that, we in the audience shift in our seats a little; sit up straighter, brighter. Tuohy, like Ms. Rain, is the character we've been waiting for.

She escapes the trap a guilt-ridden liberal might fall into by being honest: by admitting to worrying that Michael, now safely tucked into her mansion home, might actually rob her blind; and by admitting that she's terrified when traveling to his part of town. She doesn't pretend that she has it all figured out, and she wouldn't dream of claiming to be anyone's savior.


And so, in the end, what "saves" both Michael and Precious is much deeper and richer than the mean-spirited, simplistic individualism promoted by so many right-wing political conservatives.

What saves them is love.

And for those real-life Michael Ohers and Claireece Joneses whose lives have been fundamentally changed by a teacher, a coach, a mentor or a surrogate mother, I doubt that any of the convoluted theories from either side - liberals or conservatives - matters much in the end.

Not in comparison to a real-life Ms. Rain or a Leigh Anne Tuohy.


Kristal Brent Zook, the author of "I See Black People" and "Black Women's Lives," is an associate professor of journalism at Hofstra University.


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