'Precious' Pushes Past Controversy to Oscar Night

Friday, March 5, 2010

"Precious," the controversial movie about an abused obese black teenager, co-produced by Oprah, is up for six Oscars on Sunday; "Avatar" is up for nine. Black female film critics have given both movies mixed reviews.

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Dominga Martin, founder of House of Ming film company in Brooklyn, N.Y., says she cherishes "Precious."

Martin says she has a similar feeling about this year's most powerhouse Oscar contender, "Avatar," the record-grossing, futuristic fable up for best picture and eight other Oscars.

Martin admires the rich, cinematic abundance of Pandora, the imaginary futuristic world portrayed by "Avatar," where blue aliens fight to defend a homeland besieged by an American army.

"People see 'Avatar' over and over because it's a different story every time," Martin said. "It's about family, the army and war. Pandora had the Hallelujah Mountains and the Tree of Souls."

Others Less Entranced

Kamal Larsuel, founder of, a box-office movie review Web site by black women, is far less entranced by "Avatar," which she declined to discuss on her site. Set 139 years from now, "Avatar" does not depict a single black woman living in the future, she says.

"Apparently black women must do everything we need to now, because according to futuristic movies, we don't make it past 2015," said Larsuel, a Web designer and film lecturer living outside Seattle.

Among the blue aliens, African American actress Zoe Saldana brings to life the caring warrior Neytiri. Like the rest of her Na'vi people, she has pointy cat ears and a tail.

"Can we say she's a black woman?" Brooks said. "Is Neytiri even a woman, or human?"

Saldana's portrayal of Neytiri has gained cult fans, but she is not up for a supporting actress award. "Avatar" director James Cameron has said he regrets that because his alien actors are digitally dressed in blue, some viewers think they are animations instead of actual performers.

"Avatar" has won worldwide attention for its technical virtuosity and a message warning against the menace of wars over minerals, the exploitation of science and soldiers for financial gain and the degradation of spirituality and the environment.

Troubling Subtext

But Larsuel sees a troubling subtext.

"I don't know when it hit me, but it did hit me," said Larsuel, whose site hosted more than 160,000 unique visitors in 2009.

Once again, Larsuel says, a white male protagonist--in this case, the marine Jake Sully played by Sam Worthington--saves the day of a helpless, stick-and-stone throwing native population.

The resilience of that plot line may have something to do with who runs the scene in Hollywood.

Women made up only 2 percent of cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2009, Martha M. Lauzen, director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, reported this year.

When black women have a chance to direct, Brooks finds the movies are often serious, complex, intellectually challenging and historic. As an example, she points to Kasi Lemmons' 1997 "Eve's Bayou," set in 1960s Louisiana and about family secrets, mystical truths and innocence unraveled.

"If it is not nominated for Academy Awards, then the academy is not paying attention," Robert Ebert wrote in his Chicago Sun-Times review column in 1997.

The Oscars came and went that year, but "Eve's Bayou" wasn't nominated, so it didn't stand a chance.

Malena Amusa is a New York-based reporter.

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