By Alex Jung
When Lee Daniels opened his casting call in urbania, to find the It girl whom Hollywood could not offer, he searched for a woman who did not resemble Precious Jones. He avoided casting women whose own lives mirrored that of Precious’ because he intuited that such a choice would have been exploitative. “They would’ve said, ‘Oh, this poor little girl. This is her story.’ And it ain’t Gabby’s story. Gabby is smarter than me, that’s for sure.”
Daniels seems to have given people far too much credit. In almost every profile of Gabourey Sidibe who plays the title character, Sidibe finds herself in the awkward position of correcting people who have confused the movie for a documentary (Mariah Carey moonlights as a social worker, didn’t you know?). Most recently in The Guardian Sidibe describes, “I’ve seriously got people saying to me: ‘Are your children OK now?’ And not just from ordinary people, but from people who’ve been in the movie business 20 or 30 years.”
Whereas white men have, since the beginning of the movies, been able to play any part, actors of color have had to contend with racial typecasts. When Edward Norton debuted as a schizophrenic murderer in Primal Fear, no one asked him how his experience in the mental ward was. Instead the onus falls upon Sidibe to insist that the “authenticity” of her acting is actually due to talent, and not personal life experience.
With critics in hand, Lions Gate Studio is painstakingly attempting to correct this misconception. The text of a full-page For Your Consideration ad in Variety magazine quotes Roger Ebert:
[Sidibe] so completely creates the Precious character that you rather wonder if she’s very much like her.
You meet Sidibe, who is engaging, outgoing and 10 years older than her character, and you’re almost startled. She’s not at all like Precious
Tim Murphy writing for New York magazine calls such a conflation “understandable” because Sidibe’s portrayal is so “moving and primal.” Similarly, in a cover article for The New York Times Magazine, “The Audacity of Precious,” Lynn Hirschberg notes, “Unlike Precious, Sidibe is well spoken and cheerful.”
You can practically hear their jaws unhinge: She doesn’t talk back! She doesn’t talk Black!
Sidibe’s bubbly personality is fundamentally at odds with our conceptions of large, dark-skinned Black women. The mainstream media has presented such women as poverty porn (of which Precious is arguably a variation of), and consequently the likes of Hollywood cannot fathom that someone who looks like Sidibe, could actually be content with herself. In the Guardian profile, she says: “When I was 14 I decided that whatever people say and no matter what I look like, I was going to be happy with myself.”
Alex Jung is currently unemployed and watching television. If you’d like to give him a job, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.