I remember after the release of Precious and I watched with somewhat bemused shock at the bevy of criticism levied upon the film by African American film critics and social commentators who slammed the film for glorifying every oppressive and ugly ‘trope of blackness’ (their words, not mine). Since I am not African American, I could only appreciate from a distance what some vocal critics were decrying as the upholding of ghetto stereotypes.
That was in mid 2009 – a few months after the nation had elected its first African American president. Four years later we have reelected the same president and are confronted with the challenge of redefining “tropes of blackness”. Does the ascendance of Obama mean that little black boys everywhere now know they can grow up to be more than basketball layers or rappers? Or that society now expects much, much more from them?
That is a loaded and difficult question, and it gets a little bit of redeeming lip service in the new film LUV which stars the rapper Common and newcomer Michael Rainey as his nephew. Common plays an ex-con named Vincent who takes it upon himself to teach his 11-year-old nephew Woody the ways of the world. More specifically, he directs him on the process of becoming a man.
Vincent wants to make good on his freedom and decides to show his nephew how to be a man by letting him observe the launch of his new business. Unfortunately, things don’t work out and he’s drawn back to pretty crimes, which surprises exactly no one. Turns out, he isn’t quite the man he thought he was.
The movie means well, and for that it gets credit. Regrettably, it’s far too clichéd to do anything other than reinforce the very stereotypes it tries to defy. Which makes me wonder if the real tragedy for Woody and others like him is not the limits of expectations, but the transfer of unresolved burdens from previous generations. Which is kind of what I thought Precious was all about anyway.