The Girl Who Divided Black America

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Morbidly obese, illiterate, abused physically and emotionally by her parents - and adored by white critics... Why controversial new movie 'Precious' has African-Americans in turmoil

When news broke in early 2008 that the American entrepreneur Lee Daniels was planning to direct a feature film adaptation of Sapphire's 1996 bestseller Push, it's safe to say that few expected a masterpiece. Though he produced two of the better US indies of the first half of the decade, the Oscar-winning Monster's Ball (2001) and The Woodsman (2004), Daniel's directorial debut, 2005's Shadowboxer, had been anything but a success. In fact, it was the kind of movie most directors quietly excise from their CVs.

Hysterically overwrought and crudely conceived, this tale of a hitman (Cuba Gooding Jr) and his cancer-stricken stepmother (also an assassin, and played by a game Helen Mirren), reached an early climax - pun very much intended - when the former shoots the latter in the head ... while simultaneously bringing her to orgasm in the woods. If nothing else, Shadowboxer at least established that, when it came to stories, Daniels likes them big and lurid.

Undeterred, his follow-up premired at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, under its original title, Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire. The tale of a morbidly obese, illiterate, black teenage girl from the housing projects, who is forced to endure repeated sexual abuse by her father and emotional and physical battery by her abusive mother, it boasted an unknown lead - the 26-year-old Gabourey Sidibe - and, in supporting roles, some unpredictable choices: notably, the musicians Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey.

Push arrived at Sundance largely unseen and without a distributor; but its first screening was a hit and a bidding war ensued. The upshot: it was bought by Lionsgate Entertainment - a shrewd acquisition, considering the film took both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for best drama. Then, less than a month later, the writer-director Tyler Perry, an executive producer on the film, announced that he would be teaming up with Oprah Winfrey to promote it. Suddenly its ascendance appeared inevitable.

Retitled Precious, it made its international premire at Cannes in May, and attracted still more fans - though British critics were more guarded in their praise than their American counterparts. In September, it won the People's Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival. And in November, it was released in US cinemas, where it was greeted with effusive praise from most critics.

Most, but not all. Enter Armond White, long-time critic for the New York Press and current chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. His review was particularly anticipated since he is one of the few African-American critics with any kind of national profile - and is known, furthermore, for the violent unpredictability of his opinions.

He did not disappoint. "Not since The Birth of a Nation [which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes] has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious," he thundered. "Full of brazenly racist cliches... it is a sociological horror show."

However, after lambasting both Perry and Winfrey for legitimising the release with their endorsements ("self-respect be damned"), White rather crippled his own argument when he contrasted the movie with other "excellent recent films with black themes" - and then went on to list the Eddie Murphy disasters Norbit and Meet Dave, and the Wayans brothers' comedy Little Man, a title pilloried by almost every other critic and which, the British reviewer Mark Kermode said, signalled "the end of Western civilisation as we know it".

White is a contrarian and a provocateur - and, as may be surmised from his examples, a man of somewhat dubious taste. Yet amid his righteous indignation, he made one or two interesting points - not least how Daniels, whether consciously or not, cast light-skinned actors as kindly and understanding (Mariah Carey, Paula Patton), and dark-skinned actors as aggressors. …