After watching “Invictus” and “Precious”, two heavy doses of racially inspirational hokum that should be thrown in the same bonfire as “Blind Side”, you really have to wonder if it is no coincidence that this junk is winding up in movie theaters in the first year of a “post-racial” White House. To one degree or another, all of these wretched movies harp on the notion of Black victimhood and the key role of white paternalism in “saving” Black people. And in each case, the audience is hoodwinked into believing that the movie is about the real world rather than some liberal fantasy.
Now that Clint Eastwood has made two movies in a row incorporating the preachy liberal values of Sidney Poitier movies like “Guess Who is Coming to Dinner”, I almost feel like circulating a petition urging him to return to his Dirty Harry ways. Just as was the case in “Grand Torino”, we have white people with racist pasts being transformed like Paul on the road from Damascus. The path to racial harmony, we are led to believe, is people going through some kind of conversion rather than structural change. This is all the more galling when a movie is made about Mandela’s bid to win over South Africa’s privileged Afrikaner population by co-opting rugby, their favorite sport.
Based on a book by Independent reporter John Carlin, it tells the story of the Springbok’s victory over New Zealand in 1995. The movie is quite good at spelling out Mandela’s calculations that the team could “bring the country together”. Over the objections of his ANC deputies, he decides to attach his government’s reputation to their bid to win the world cup in more or less the same manner that Mayor Bloomberg or any other big city mayor would make sure to wear the insignias of a World Series-bound baseball team.
One can understand why the movie would leave out the unpleasant facts about why Black South Africans were so hostile to rugby since the inclusion of any scenes dramatizing the sordid past might have rendered director Eastwood’s Pollyanna vision unrealizable.
On June 24, 1995, the night that the South African team defeated New Zealand, South Africa’s Andrew Kenny wrote an article in the Age, an Australian daily, on “why I still hate rugby”:
My hatred of rugby was beaten into me at a village primary school near Cape Town, where we were terrorised by a rugby-worshipping Afrikaner schoolmaster. For Mr B, rugby, manhood and the destiny of the white races were inseparably linked. Any boy who did not play rugby was a “moffie” (a homosexual). pooftah, the word apparently derived from `hermaphrodite’).When one boy dared to bring a soccer ball to school, Mr B cut it up. When I left primary school at the end of 1960, the year of Sharpeville and a time when more and more black African countries were gaining independence, Mr B gave us his final homily. I remember it to this day.
The forces of darkness were descending upon us. Mr B drew an inverted triangle on the blackboard to represent Africa; he colored in the top three quarters to show it was lost to barbarism. He pointed to the bottom tip, a threatened promontory of civilisation. This was the citadel we must defend and the stage on which we must triumph. He, Mr B, would never quit. He would remain if he were the last white man left and, referring to the black hordes, he said, “I’ll strangle them with my bare hands!” If there was glory in fighting the savages until the end, the rugby field represented a field of greater glory yet, indeed of transcending glory.
In “Invictus”, there’s a scene that is so nakedly didactic that if it was read by a writing instructor in any of your better institutions of higher learning, it would be circled in red as needing a rewrite. As the rugby match is in progress, we see a couple of white cops in South Africa sitting in their car listening to the game that is in progress. When they spot a Black youth picking through litter near their car, they take steps to send him on their way but get caught up in the game. He lingers by their car and begins to follow the progress of the game with them. When South Africa finally wins, they hoist him on their shoulders and place one of their caps on his head. The message could not be clearer. A victory in sports healed the country’s wounds.
Leaving aside the bigger question of racial equality in South Africa, there is not much evidence that the Springboks themselves changed that much despite Mandela’s benediction in 1995.
In December of 2003, Rory Carroll filed a report in the Guardian about what was happening with the “enlightened” rugby team, including its one non-white player Chester Williams (in reality he is colored, but in “Invictus”, he played by a Black actor.)
For weeks the airwaves and headlines have been dominated by allegations that rugby, and by extension the Afrikaner community, remains deeply racist and that the euphoria of the 1995 World Cup victory and Nelson Mandela sporting a Springbok jersey was a sham. That behind the rainbow rhetoric, the old prejudices endure and that in their hearts apartheid’s masters have not changed. The controversy has flared on the eve of the World Cup, exposing the sport and the culture that underpins it to intense scrutiny just as South Africa prepares to meet England.
The picture that has emerged is not pretty. Hulking in the foreground is Geo Cronje, the 23-year-old lock and Springbok hopeful who triggered the current row by refusing to share a dormitory room with a black team-mate, Quinton Davids. Cronje, according to that favoured South African euphemism, is “conservative”, and he certainly looks the part, sporting a beard that evokes comparisons with a Boer commando or a 17th-century Dutch settler ancestor. He was expelled from the squad, but an internal investigation found no “conclusive evidence” that he shunned Davids on grounds of race.
In the ensuing brouhaha, the Springbok’s media manager, Mark Keohane, submitted a report to SA Rugby, the sport’s professional arm, alleging widespread racial intolerance, and quit his post, saying in a statement: “My decision to resign is a matter of conscience and a moral one as I can no longer be part of a squad in which prejudice is tolerated, wished away and excused.” Keohane’s report prompted the sport’s authorities to appoint a retired judge, Edwin King, to head an independent investigation into rugby at all levels, from school to country. Mud is expected to fly when hearings start next year.
If the 1991 merger of the white South African Rugby Board (SARB) and the non-racial, black-run South African Rugby Union (SARU) was a wedding, the honeymoon ended soon after the 1995 World Cup victory. The following year the Springboks selected a hooker [a rugby position, not a sex worker], Henry Tromp, who had been convicted of the manslaughter of a black farm labourer. Then the coach, Andre Markgraaff, resigned in tears after being secretly taped calling black administrators “Kaffirs”. In 1998 just four blacks were included among 120 players for a tournament, prompting a government- sponsored commission of inquiry and calls to renew the international boycott of the team.
A prop, Toks van der Linde, was sent home from a tour of New Zealand for calling a woman a Kaffir and two years ago nine members of the Noordelikes rugby club were implicated in the death of a black man on one of the player’s farms. Two were convicted of murder. Then last year Chester Williams, the black wing who was the pin-up of racial unity, revealed in his biography that he had been used. “The marketing men branded me a product of development and a sign of change. Nothing could have been more of a lie.”
Now that would have made for a much more interesting and a much more truthful movie. Chester Williams would have been a perfect symbol of how the ANC betrayed the hopes of the nation by allowing it to be used as willing tool of white capitalist interests. Ironically, Eastwood did seem to have a handle on this kind of manipulation when he made “Flags of Our Fathers” but in this era of racial feel-good politics, it would have been beyond him to challenge post-apartheid mythology.
Turning to “Precious”, we can at least say that the movie has more of a Black proprietorship than the white liberal “Invictus”. Sadly that proprietorship appears far more interested in catering to the prejudices of a middle class white audience than to get to the heart of racial oppression in the U.S. today.
Set in Harlem in the mid-1980s, “Precious” is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones, (Gabourey Sidibe) an obese Black teenager whose two children were the result of being raped by her father, who is absent from the household throughout the movie. Her mother Mary (Mo’Nique) is a welfare recipient whose life revolves around verbally and physically abusing her daughter and staring at television. If you’ve seen “Cinderella” or “Mommy Dearest”, you’ll recognize the material instantly.
Instead of a fairy godmother, Precious gets initial help from a white schoolteacher and social worker to help deliver her from a living hell. She starts attending an “alternative” school in Harlem and eventually moves out of her mother’s apartment. The moral of the story is that Black family life, especially in conditions of poverty, is dysfunctional to the core and in desperate need of outside intervention.
Much of “Precious” is as lurid as a John Waters movie, but without the yucks. Mary is constantly throwing things at Precious, including a television set in a climactic scene. Since people on welfare tend to rely on television as their sole means of entertainment, this was simply not to be believed. Even more astoundingly, Mary’s apartment is a duplex. Since television dramas and situation comedies tend to exaggerate the size and worth of apartments and homes in general, one cannot blame director Lee Daniels for doing anything except following boneheaded conventions.
Director Lee Daniels is a gay black man who was drawn to adapt the novel “Push” by Sapphire because its main character represented everything that offended him growing up, as he told the N.Y Times:
“Precious” is so not Obama. “Precious” is so not P.C. What I learned from doing the film is that even though I am black, I’m prejudiced. I’m prejudiced against people who are darker than me. When I was young, I went to a church where the lighter-skinned you were, the closer you sat to the altar. Anybody that’s heavy like Precious — I thought they were dirty and not very smart. Making this movie changed my heart. I’ll never look at a fat girl walking down the street the same way again.
While nobody would deny Mr. Daniels the right to make a movie about whatever turned him on, including a ritual expiation for past prejudices, he should be aware that the movie reinforces stereotypes other than about body size.
Put simply, “Precious” recycles Reagan-era bullshit about “welfare queens” that are not even slightly relevant to our present age, when aid to dependent children, the program that Precious’s mother benefited from, was abolished under President Clinton. Mary is a grotesque that could have been cooked up by David Duke on a day when he got up on the wrong side of the bed. In over 50 years of watching movies with Black people in the cast, I have not seen anything more one-sided and hateful since “Gone with the Wind”.
On a personal note, I first got involved with radical politics after working in Harlem for the welfare department in 1968. After seeing the plight of poor people for the first time in my life and facing the draft, I decided that the system was inherently unjust and had to be transformed.
The main impression I got from spending time with several dozen women trying to raise children on their own was that of unstinting patience and generosity. There was not a single reported instance of child abuse and, to the contrary, the mothers were reported as being fierce defenders of their children’s right to enjoy a decent life no matter how poor they were.
The main threat to the children was not from the parents, but from the horrible conditions of slum life that were forced on them, from rat bites to a lack of steam heat in the winter months. As the schools were also rotten, the dropout rate far exceeded that of more privileged neighborhoods, a reality that has not changed.
It is very likely that this movie would not have been made without funding by Oprah Winfrey who was drawn to the project for reasons not hard to fathom. As one of the richest women in America, she incorporates the Horatio Alger ethos that is shared by whites and Blacks alike. In an interview with U.S. News, Winfrey stated:
I am never not aware of who I am, where I’ve come from–and what it took for me to give back. I am a colored girl born in Mississippi in 1954 and all that that means: poverty, isolation, discrimination, deprivation, lack of information, low self-esteem. The expectation for me was to work in white people’s kitchens. I am here because I have walked across the backs of people who made this way for me. That’s in everything that I do. I’m black and I’m female and . . . I find strength and honor in that. My responsibility is not just to myself.
Of course, her responsibility to others is not measured in the traditional manner of the civil rights movement but in handing out automobiles to her studio audience. In 2004, she gave 276 Pontiacs to the lucky people who showed up that day. For only 7 million dollars, she got publicity that was worth its weight in gold.
For those who worked for Pontiac, the picture is not so bright. This division of General Motors was liquidated as part of President Obama’s restructuring and many more African-American workers will end up with the shitty end of the stick than Oprah’s audience. Indeed, there is little likelihood that either Oprah or Obama will have much of an impact on these peoples’ lives:
Nearly half of Detroit’s workers are unemployed
Analysis shows reported jobless rate understates extent of problem
Mike Wilkinson / The Detroit News
Despite an official unemployment rate of 27 percent, the real jobs problem in Detroit may be affecting half of the working-age population, thousands of whom either can’t find a job or are working fewer hours than they want.
Using a broader definition of unemployment, as much as 45 percent of the labor force has been affected by the downturn.
And that doesn’t include those who gave up the job search more than a year ago, a number that could exceed 100,000 potential workers alone.
“It’s a big number, and we should be concerned about it whether it’s one in two or something less than that,” said George Fulton, a University of Michigan economist who helps craft economic forecasts for the state.
Mayor Dave Bing recently raised eyebrows when he said what many already suspected: that the city’s official unemployment rate was as believable as Santa Claus. In Washington for a jobs forum earlier this month, he estimated it was “closer to 50 percent.”