The 'socially important' movie

Nearly every Academy Awards season, the Oscar nominations bring to the forefront a small film deemed to be "socially important," a film of supposedly searing insight into the human condition, a film that - in short - cannot be ignored. These movies often tell us more about the Hollywood elite (i.e., Academy voters) than they do about any real social condition.

This year's anointed picture is "Precious," often described in reviews as a fairly brutal depiction of the life of an obese and illiterate black teenager who has two children by her father. Films like "Precious" garner critical attention and Academy nods not as films -- the acclaim is not really for script, plot, direction or cinematography. "Precious" is celebrated for what it allegedly reveals to us about the hidden sides of society we choose not to see. But does it?

In a frank appraisal on The New York Times' op-ed page last Friday, African-American author Ishmael Reed argues that "Precious" is a film that black audiences reject, but whites embrace. Reed argues that white audiences see in this film about a very tragic life individual lessons that apply to the entire black community. Black audiences turn away from "Precious" for the very same reason -- they are tired of white audiences allowing such movies to stand for all African-Americans.

Certainly there are dysfunction-filled films about white families -- including last year's Best Picture, "There Will Be Blood." But no one, Reed writes, suggested movies like that one revealed something hidden and sinister about whites, or oil-men.

But there is also something more complex going on here, something more than a certain brand of racial profiling. To me, these "socially important" films are a kind of intellectual porn. They allow film critics and particular segments of the audience to dwell in the muck and mire for a while, only to emerge with their consciences vaguely touched, their self-worth reaffirmed, and their identities as compassionate sophisticates newly-burnished.

This happens a lot. In 1995, it was a small independent film called "Kids," about upperclass Manhattan teens. The plot, as described by the IMDB Web site, is this: "An amoral, HIV-positive skateboarder sets out to deflower as many virgins as possible while a local girl who contracted his disease tries to save his next target from her same fate." I remembered vividly a friend from New York urging me to see the film because it was "important." It said so much about the new generation of teenagers, I was told.

To which I thought: really? Is there really an American epidemic of HIV teens seeking out virgins? It seemed more likely that "Kids" allowed art-house critics and audiences to indulge in a movie about horrible sexual irresponsibility, but still feel good about it. By labeling "Kids" socially important, you had it all: the naughty bits and the sense of superiority. Naturally, "Kids" went on to win a whole bunch of independent film awards.

And so this year, there is "Precious," offering to tell us something important about the African-American experience -- because it has to. If it were just a film about a tragic-girl-who-happens-to -be-black trapped in a bleak existence far, far beyond the norm -- well, who would go see that? No one would leave the theatre feeling better. But "Precious" (with its six Oscar nominations) invites us to come on in, watch, and walk away with a host of teaching tools about our society. That is worth a few bucks and a couple of hours on a Saturday night.

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