Dec. 7, 2009— -- There are two new films at the box office depicting poor black teenagers trying to escape their gritty urban lives. But only one of them is drawing criticism from many members of the black community.
"Precious," the critically acclaimed drama about an illiterate black teenage girl abused by her mother and pregnant with a second child by her father, has come under fire by a number of blacks, including Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy and former Time magazine columnist Jack White.
Meanwhile, blacks, for the most part, have been noticeably silent about "The Blind Side," the Sandra Bullock-helmed movie based on the true story of a Memphis family, the Tuohys, who take in a poor homeless black boy, Michael Oher, who becomes an NFL star.
Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips finds the discrepancy puzzling.
"While everyone is fussing about 'Precious,' a movie like 'The Blind Side' is going to make a pile of dough and seems far more racially patronizing," said Phillips, the white co-host of the syndicated show "At the Movies."
"'The Blind Side' is telling a really good story about one African-American character completely through the perspective of the white family."
"That's absurd and patronizing in itself," Armond White, chief film critic of The New York Press, said of Phillips' comments.
The reason for the discrepancy, said White, who is black, is simple.
"Some black people find 'Precious' offensive and they don't find 'The Blind Side' offensive," he said. "There's more humanity there. 'Precious' is like a horror show, a freak show. There's nothing but misery, debased behavior and degradation. One film is about Samaritan-ism, humanism, kindness, love and brotherhood, and the other is about degradation and ignorance.
"I'm happy that people aren't buying it ['Precious'] and prefer to buy 'The Blind Side,'" he added.
Indeed, "Blind Side" opened last week just behind the "Twilight" juggernaut, raking in more its first weekend -- $34 million -- than "Precious" has grossed since its limited opening Nov. 6. Granted, "Blind Side" is being marketed as a Hollywood mainstream film, whereas "Precious" is being sold more as an art film.
Most Demeaning Since 'Birth of a Nation'?
Since its Nov. 20 wide release, "Precious" has made a decent showing at the box office and, moreover, it's being widely touted as the Oscar front-runner.
So why is a film, written and directed by blacks, based on the popular novel of a black writer, getting so much push-back from blacks?
Milloy wrote in his column last month that Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, executive producers of the film, "have helped serve up a film of prurient interest that has about as much redeeming social value as a porn flick."
Milloy told ABCNews.com he hasn't seen "The Blind Side," but among his black friends who have, they "like it a lot," he said. "Apparently, the book was really good, and people went in knowing that they were going to get a happy holiday ending."
Jack White refuses to see "Precious," writing in a recent column on TheRoot.com, "I don't have to see 'Precious' to know that it has little to tell us about how we can improve the circumstances of real-life victims of such tragedy."
Armond White, who chairs the New York Film Critics Circle, called "Precious" more demeaning to black people than any other film since D.W. Griffith's crudely racist "Birth of a Nation" in 1915.
"Full of brazenly racist cliches [Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken], it is a sociological horror show," he wrote last month.
Later, in a separate column, he praised "The Blind Side" as an antidote to the "Preciousmania" seizing the nation because it is "so free of the guilt 'Precious' arouses that it simultaneously raises the level of social imagination."
Meanwhile, white culture critic Mark Blankenship, editor and chief of TheCriticalCondition.com, sees "The Blind Side" as another Hollywood production of a do-gooder white person rescuing a poor black person.
"The real story is inspiring," Blankenship said, "but the way it's being sold as a film is not very surprising. We've seen movies like 'The Blind Side' over and over again -- 'Dangerous Minds,' 'Freedom Writers,' 'Finding Forrester' -- even if we haven't seen stories like the Tuohys or Michael Oher, which is an exceptional story being sold to us as just the latest cog in a feel-good machine."
'Precious' Not First to Divide Blacks
Blankenship said he left the film "Precious" feeling as though "I had seen something unique. I was shaken and upset, but in a way that I was happy to feel."
As with Blankenship, there appear to be far more defenders of the film, and black audiences are still turning out in large numbers to see it.
Mia Mask, chair of the film department at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., understands the controversy "Precious" is generating.
"We still have a lot of difficulty looking at stories of black life that are not complimentary, that deal with abuse, addiction, desperation and contradiction," Mask told ABCNews.com. "We always get caught up in the discourse of its reproducing stereotypes."
Mask, who specializes in African-American cinema, found the film both "problematic and progressive."
She agreed with others' criticism about the director's use of light-skinned, attractive blacks -- Mariah Carey, Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz -- to represent the "good" people in Precious' life and dark-skinned blacks -- newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious, and comedian Mo'Nique as her mother -- to represent the ones riddled with pathology.
But Mask was also incredibly moved by the film, especially Mo'Nique's performance in the scene where she explains why she was abusive.
"I stopped seeing this as a story about black people but a story about humanity," she said, "and the terrible conditions around people's lives and what they have wrought. It became more complicated than a film that reinforces class and color stereotypes."
"Precious" follows other films about black life that have divided black audiences. When it came out in 1985, "The Color Purple," based on the novel by Alice Walker, was criticized for its portrayal of abusive black men. And despite Winfrey's Midas touch, she persuaded few blacks to see her in "Beloved," the slave drama based on Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Room for Variety of Stories
While the debate will no doubt continue, Mask and Sapphire, author of the novel "Push," on which "Precious" is based, believe there's room for both a "Precious" and a "Blind Side" in the black community.
"With Michelle, Sasha and Malia and Obama in the White House and in the post-'Cosby Show' era, people can't say these are the only images out there," Sapphire told The New York Times in a recent interview. "Black people are able to say 'Precious' represents some of our children but some of our children go to Yale."