Tyler Perry has posted a raw, religious confessional on his website. He says that the film Precious’s brutal portrayal of domestic and sexual abuse “brought back memories so strong that [he] can smell and taste them.” Like Oprah, Perry is giving his share of the film’s profits to charity. And like the Oprah of many years ago, he’s coming clean about his own staggering history of abuse. He begins with the time he was 2 or 3 years old and his mother ran away from his father — until his father caught up with them and “beat her black and blue from California to Louisiana, as me and my sisters watched.”
Perry describes “random, drunken, violent beatings” delivered by his father until the age of 19, including one time when his father “got the vacuum cleaner extension cord and trapped me in a room and beat me until the skin was coming off my back.” He goes on to describe a woman who locked him in her apartment: “She put the key inside of herself and told me to come get it.” He describes a recent phone call from a family member asking him to pay for the funeral of a man who had molested him: “I wish I would have dug the grave myself.” Perry also accuses his father of sexually molesting a young female friend, then beating him for interfering.
Since Precious debuted at Sundance, pundits have sniped that a tough film about an abused girl couldn’t possibly reach a wide audience. Then it won the Audience Award at Sundance and the People’s Choice Award in Toronto — and picked up celebrity supporters Winfrey and Perry. So now maybe it’s worth looking at why a widespread audience might be interested in such a story, even if it’s not the kind Hollywood would ever know how to court. About one quarter of all women in the United States have been victims of domestic abuse. About 10 percent have experienced “forced sex.” Six million kids are reported every year as subjects of possible maltreatment. There are more stats out there. This is not a niche story.
Right now, gossips are freaking out over a few celebrity-friendly stories of sexual harassment and abuse, but it’s worth remembering that Oprah built the most powerful daytime television show of the century, in large part by empathizing with the kind of stories that had gone underreported elsewhere. This film could flop. It could break out. We’ll see. But there’s no reason audiences should empathize with Precious any less than they would with the latest zombie kill of the week.