Armond White Abuses “Precious.”

Armond White, film critic

"I am not a contrarian; everyone else is a conformist."

There’s one in every crowd of film critics.  The one critic who doesn’t simply march to the beat of a different drummer;  he has his own original soundtrack.  That’s Armond White, film critic for a website you don’t read named the New York Press.   White has carefully crafted a reputation as the skunk at the garden parties.  If the vast majority is going one way on a film, he tacks in an opposite direction and when he goes after a particular movie that irks his sensibilities he doesn’t stop pummeling it until  he’s licking the blood off his knuckles.

The do-it-yourself aspects of the Internet made anyone with a laptop a critic whether they had the knack for it or not.  That really annoyed the professional critics who found themselves suddenly increasingly irrelevant.   So if being smart isn’t working anymore, how about just being incredibly nasty in temperament?  This is White’s house special.

The vast majority of critics have practically guaranteed Precious as a stone cold lock for Oscar nominations, White disagrees mightily.  In his review  White guts the film saying, “Not since The Birth of A Nation” has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious.”

That’s not simply a pan, but White was equally unsparing of director Lee Daniels and executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry.

Shame on Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey for signing on as air-quote executive producers of Precious. After this post-hip-hop freak show wowed Sundance last January, it now slouches toward Oscar ratification thanks to its powerful friends.Winfrey and Perry had no hand in the actual production of Precious, yet the movie must have touched some sore spot in their demagogue psyches. They’ve piggybacked their reps as black success stories hoping to camouflage Precious’ con job—even though it’s more scandalous than their own upliftment trade.

Winfrey, Perry and Daniels make an unholy triumvirate.They come together at some intersection of race exploitation and opportunism. These two media titans—plus one shrewd pathology pimp—use Precious to rework Booker T. Washington’s early 20th-century manifesto Up From Slavery into extreme drama for the new millennium.

Eddie Murphy in "Norbit"

"Norbit" cost Eddie an Oscar, but Armond White thinks it rocks!

I used to believe it was easy to write a negative review until I had to actually sit through bad movies when I was a stringer for Columbus Dispatch film critic Frank Gabrenya.   That’s when I realized the time wasted on bad movies, bad books or bad music makes them not much fun to trash.

Armond White is the sort of haughty, pompous and self-important critic the Internet has made pretty much irrelevant.   Of course he’s entitled to slam any film he thinks is a waste of time and celluloid, but his Precious review is nothing more than a full-blown rant against African-American celebrities he finds annoying.    The movie itself is irrelevant.  It’s just the punching bag White pastes pictures of Oprah and Tyler on to swing at.

How seriously can anyone take White when no sooner has he compared Precious unfavorably to The Birth of A Nation, D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist Valentine card to the Ku Klux Klan  and Black politicans lording it over White citizens (Griffith would have been the guest of honor at tax day tea parties rallies against Barack Obama) than he follows it up with this jaw-dropping paragraph.

The hype for Precious indicates a culture-wide willingness to accept particular ethnic stereotypes as a way of maintaining status quo film values. Excellent recent films with black themes—Next Day Air, Cadillac Records, Meet Dave, Norbit, Little Man, Akeelah and the Bee, First Sunday, The Ladykillers, Marci X, Palindromes, Mr. 3000, even back to the great Beloved (also produced by Oprah)—have been ignored by the mainstream media and serious film culture while this carnival of black degradation gets celebrated. It’s a strange combination of liberal guilt and condescension.

That’s right, folks.  White is saying when it comes to making a contribution to cinema and uplifting the race, Precious can’t hold Meet Dave, Little Man and Norbit’s collective jock straps.

I haven’t seen Precious yet, so I can’t offer an opinion whether it deserves the hammering White gives it or it’s a bona fide masterpiece.   However, the ugly way White goes about eviscerating it only makes me more sympathetic, not less, to this unconventional underdog of a movie.

There’s a line between coherent criticism of a failed film and just ripping into as so to draw attention to your review.  White waits until the last paragraph to cross it where he drop kicks lead actress Gabourey Sidibe dubbing her a “hippopotamus.”    That goes beyond harsh.  That is just cruel.

It’s possible White is really drinking the haterade and truly finds Precious to be a totally repugnant movie.  But it’s hard to take seriously his disgust when he hails a piece of excrement like Norbit as an “excellent film.”   How is Eddie Murphy swaddled in layers of latex as an grossly offensive and vulgar bastardization of Black women less offensive than comparing an overweight teenager unfavorably to the third-largest land mammal?

I mean, Norbit?   Seriously?  How can White write a sentence like that with a straight face?

There’s something vaguely admirable about holding a contrary opinion in the face of nearly unanimous praise.   Precious may prove not to live up to its hype.  Great.  White will have the satisfaction of saying he was right when everybody else was wrong.  But his sledgehammer rhetoric and praise for trash come off as a grab for attention.

Armond White is playing a hustle to get some attention for a review that would otherwise go largely unnoticed.  I regret to the extent that I have assisted him in this endeavor.    On the other hand, I’m providing a public service by exposing White’s tirade as the mean-spirited mugging  it  is.

Can you find the "hippopotamus" in this picture?

“Precious” (or what in the world could make me want to see a movie with Mo’nique?)

Is there a place in the world (or Hollywood) for a 300-lb, pregnant Black teenager with dreams?

Is there a place in the world (or Hollywood) for a 300-lb, pregnant Black teenager with dreams?

Anyone that knows me knows two things about me:  I’m pretty much indifferent about anything the name of Tyler Perry is attached to and if you want to unleash a flood of negative and nasty cracks expose to anything featuring the “comedian” known as Mo’nique.

Life has gone on quite nicely with me never having watched any of Perry’s plays, movies or television shows.  Mo’nique with her way over the top persona, “I hate skinny bitches” rap just seems to wallow in this bizarre “I’m big, loud, fat and fabulous” persona that wears on me like nails dragging across a blackboard.

I don’t begrudge her or Perry for their success.  They’re certainly entitled to do what they have to do to get paid, but I always vowed it would be a cold day in hell before either one of them ever saw a dime of my hard-earned party money.   Madea meets Mo’nique?  Wow.  Not my idea of a good time.

So why do I find myself looking forward to seeing a movie produced by Perry and starring Mo’nique?

Because when a small independent film is produced by Perry and Oprah Winfrey, wins the Best Picture at the Sundance Film Festival and is generating buzz for a Oscar-worthy performance by Mo’nique,  it’s a sure sign we’re officially not in Stereotypical Negro Land any more.

The movie is called Precious, based on the book “Push” by the writer Sapphire.   Here is a synopsis from Indie Wire:

Lee Daniels’ “Push” is based on the novel by Sapphire. It is described by the Sundance catalog as the story of “Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a high-school girl with nothing working in her favor. She is pregnant with her father’s child—for the second time. She can’t read or write, and her schoolmates tease her for being fat. Her home life is a horror, ruled by a mother (Mo’Nique) who keeps her imprisoned both emotionally and physically. Precious’s instincts tell her one thing: if she’s ever going to break from the chains of ignorance, she will have to dig deeply into her own resources.”

The movie’s title was changed from “Push” to “Precious” to avoid confusion with Push, a forgettable  CGI action flick that came and went without a trace earlier this year.   Despite winning the Grand Prize at Sundance and Mo’nique’s harrowing performance as the abusive mother of Precious won a best supporting actress recognition by  the festival Grand Jury , the film was not picked up by a distributor until a few weeks later.

L-R: Mariah Carey, Gabourey Sidibe, Lee Daniels, Monique, Paula Patton

L-R: Mariah Carey, Gabourey Sidibe, Lee Daniels, Mo'nique, Paula Patton

The question is will audiences come out to support a dark story about a 300-lb illiterate Black girl who isn’t pretty or light-skinned?   Daniels, a first-time, untrained director not only chose an unconventional story with an unsual central character, in Mo’nique he took someone most known for playing variations of herself on screen, added musicians in supporting roles (a de-glammed Mariah Carey as a social worker and Lenny Kravitz as a  nurse) wtih a few genuine actors (Paula Patton  and The View’s Sherri Shepherd).

Those of us who sit down in the dark to watch a movie and experience something more than sensory overload from popcorn entertainment filled with computer generated special effects and explosions often complain (okay, we whine a bit too) over the lack of intelligent stories and “real” characters that tug our heart strings and make us think instead of merely being bludgeoned into submission by sensory overload.

To put it another way, if we don’t support serious filmmakers we’re doomed to a steady diet of Transformers, GI Joe and other schlock.

I’m not a fan of Mo’nique, but I am a fan of solid acting and if she is as good in Precious as advertised, I’m going to have to put aside my prejudices and preconceptions for a while and support a little movie that seems to be brimming with the potential to be something special.

Precious opens in November 2009.  Just in time for Academy Award consideration.  Which means don’t be shocked if next February you hear the words “The Academy Award for the best supporting acting performance in a film goes to…Mo’nique in Precious.”