(WOMENSENEWS)–Not since the film version of "The Color Purple" came out 25 years ago have black women had so much at stake at the Academy Awards.
"The Color Purple"–based on a book of the same name by Alice Walker about sisterhood and a black woman’s rise above family abuse and illiteracy–was up for 11 Oscar nominations 25 years ago. It took home none.
Since then, no movie with a leading black female actress has been back in competition for best picture.
A handful of movies, such as "Dreamgirls" (2006) and "Monsters Ball" (2008), have fanned hope that more movies focused on black women were entering the mainstream.
Then this year along comes a stunner: "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and black powerhouse movie writer, producer and actor Tyler Perry.
So far, "Precious" has grossed about $50 million in U.S. ticket sales.
It has earned six Oscar nominations, including best picture and director for Lee Daniels, an African American who produced "Monsters Ball."
Gabourey Sidibe, who stars in the movie, is up for best actress in a leading role.
"I’m glad it’s doing well," said Dianne Brooks, a Los Angeles-based African American nonfiction writer and creator of Film Files, a review site focused on independent film. Brooks says the movie is heavy handed, but covers important ground.
"There are so few films with people of color getting attention," said Brooks, who taught film at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for 13 years before moving to Los Angeles.
"Precious" provides insight into how some people live who are invisible in our country, she added. "Sarah Palin should see ‘Precious.’"
Brooks says she is rooting, in particular, for Mo’Nique, the comedian-turned-drama star who animates Mary Jones, the child-wrecking mother in "Precious." Mo’Nique is nominated for best actress in a supporting role.
"Precious" Portrays Daily Horrors
"Precious" portrays the daily horror of an obese teenager who prevails against overwhelming odds. She’s pregnant for the second time by her father; battles illiteracy; has a child with Down syndrome; learns she is HIV-positive; and somehow must leave the house of her mentally-ill, monstrously abusive mother, the head of the dysfunctional welfare-dependent black Harlem family.
"Precious" is a brutal story that has drawn criticism for its potential to make the struggles of one family in one ghetto the general experience of black people and black women.
The Women Film Critics Circle, an association of 47 female film critics and scholars, debated the movie on its listserve and ultimately put "Precious" on its list of top 10 "Hall of Shame" movies.
"It promotes prejudice against blacks, fat women, unmarried women, less educated women and a whole lot more," the Circle’s online review read.
But such judgment is by no means universal.
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 3BlackChicks.com, 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.
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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