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Social Studies

Phat and Precious

By Vincent Williams | Posted 3/17/2010

I think like most people, and certainly my fellow Baltimoreans, I was ecstatic that Mo'Nique won the Academy Award for her performance in Precious. With Mary, Mo'Nique created a monstrous character that embodied the banality of true evil while offering glimpses of both her vulnerability and the social forces that shaped that evil. I felt vindicated among my own circle of friends, because I've been championing Mo'Nique's acting prowess in the years since I became a fan of her criminally underrated role in the horribly misnamed/mismarketed/mis-everything Phat Girlz, where she showed the same breadth and depth of character.

Still, I was disappointed with her acceptance speech, when she framed the success of the film as some sort of political triumph flying in the face of society's mores. While I understand some of her "performance over politics" charge had to do with the industry maneuvering involved in winning the award, Mo'Nique also made clear in interviews before and after the Oscars that she views the movie as a challenge to Hollywood and, through extension, America. C'mon now, nothing about Precious challenged anyone's views of blackness at the Academy Awards or in America en masse.

My record's pretty clear on how I feel about the African-American notion that black people should be depicted positively. While it's nice, I guess, I've always been more interested in aesthetics, so that, yes, I'll take complex but morally bankrupt characterization over cardboard cut-out feel-good every time. But that doesn't mean I don't acknowledge the truth in what "positivity proponents" espouse. The nature of American definitions of race is intrinsically political, and there are far-reaching implications in the way blackness is represented. As a result, like many folks, I also believe we live in a culture that is really only comfortable with depictions of black people as poor, depraved, and damn near feral.

And overweight black women get it worse than any other subsection of black people. To be overweight in image-driven America is a challenge, in and of itself, but when you couple weight issues with that deadly combination of being black and a woman, one of Zora Neale Hurston's "mules of the world," you have a demographic that is ridiculed, demonized, and dismissed. According to popular culture, big black women are sassy, loud, bitchy, and desexualized, yet, ironically, sexually knowledgeable enough to give advice to their virginal, innocent, skinny white girlfriends. And the character of Mary fits easily within that paradigm. Again, there are tantalizing moments that hint at the pain Mary's experiences: There's that harrowing monologue at the end and, in a film filled with sadness, the shot of Mary wearing a wig and pathetically dancing in the mirror breaks my heart. But, in the commercials, in the promo shots, and, I'm thinking, in the Oscar clips, the Mary that's getting the accolades is the monster America is comfortable in hating.

Part of why I like Mo'Nique is because she's cognizant of and interested in transcending that image. Now, I don't like all of Mo'Nique's work. I find her stand-up unnecessarily crass, and I think The Parkers was the televised equivalent of someone scratching a chalkboard while rubbing a balloon. But I like the way Mo'Nique thinks, and I like the way she navigates the world. Again, Phat Girlz--and I feel like I should put some hand sanitizer on my keyboard every time I write "Phat Girlz"--spoke to the issue of body image, etc., but also presented bigger black women who were sexualized and vulnerable and complex, and who challenged both black and white America's notion of weight issues. And I'm pretty sure that Mo'Nique's involvement was a large reason that movie even got made. That's what I want more of from Mo'Nique. Precious was amazing and deserved every award it's gotten. But, politically, it's not that impressive.

In the absurd reality that is race in America, a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy with a plus-sized sister could be considered more radical. The other day, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates blogged about supporting the new Queen Latifah/Common film Just Wright, implying how politically charged normalized depictions of black love are. I would add there's also something subversive about a film where the bigger, browner Queen Latifah gets her man over the smaller, lighter Paula Patton--just like there was something a little icky about all the "good" black people in Precious being lighter than all the "bad" black people. Counting The Last Holiday and Brown Sugar, Latifah has shown up as a black love interest in a black rom-com three times now, and every time I think it's a pretty radical depiction because it's so nondescript. I would love to see Mo'Nique do something in that fashion and, since I'm dreaming, I would love to see something like that get recognized and celebrated. And if that happens, then I'll be right on board with a speech talking about politics over performance.

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