Sharon Denise Allison-Ottey
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"And They Laughed" Part I of Insights from the Movie, Precious

With great anticipation, a good friend of mine and I went to see the highly acclaimed movie, Precious, written by Sapphire and a Tyler Perry/Oprah Winfrey production.  I had viewed the trailer and saw the actress, Gabourey Sidibe, who portrayed the title character on one of the morning shows and was intrigued.  Further, I had heard the buzz from Sundance with possible Oscar nominations and all of the media that surrounded this film.  My friend is a movie connoisseur and she really wanted to be one of the first to see it and we found the time on Saturday to walk into a theater.  We understood the heavy nature of the material; we were aware of the subject matter and had said that we needed to prepare ourselves. However, what I didn’t expect was my initial impression; not of the movie but of the audience.  There will be other pieces/parts of my assessment of the movie but I am compelled to deal with the most striking feature of this film from my perspective, the laughter that was generated.
As a way of introduction, I live in Prince George’s County, Maryland.  We are cited as the most affluent county in the United States for African Americans.  I saw the film in Bowie, Maryland where very nice homes, gated communities, luxury cars and the trappings of great suburban life are evident.  After a nice meal, my friend and I walk into a crowded theater that requires us to look for at least five to seven minutes for two seats together.  I am surprised at the lines and indeed the box office receipts from the limited opening from the prior week.  I remember vaguely telling my friend that we didn’t need to purchase tickets in advance because I didn’t feel like this type of film would have the overwhelming support that had been witnessed in other African American genres.  I told her as we walked in, luckily she had prepaid for tickets that I was wrong and pleasantly surprised — it was not only the comedies and slapstick that would make us go to the theater in droves.   Anyway, we found a seat and began to watch the film, which from the very opening scenes was profound, heavy and wrenching.  Again, I choose not to deal with the weight of the subject matter, the complexities of the lives of the women examined in the film, the abuse, the life circumstances that dropped like a ton of bricks, the utter horror that was displayed on screen as it relates to a young girl’s existence.  No, I choose to deal with the lighter side first, the rest will come.  I am compelled to frantically write of the laughter that welled up from several members of the audience as we witnessed the gripping scenes.

The first bit of untimely “comic relief” came as the main character was being belittled and denigrated by her mother, played by the actress Mo’nique.  She tells her daughter that she is nothing, that she should have aborted her, that education would get her nowhere and that she just needs to go to the welfare office.  Through the tirade of cursing, negativity and obvious psychological pathology; the scene now takes a turn for the physical abuse.  Somehow a shoe is thrown and the mother runs up the stairs and begins to brutally beat her daughter that she just finished wishing were dead.  As the mother runs up the stairs, there is laughter from the audience.  It is as if a great comedian had given a one liner that went over big.  I sat there hearing this and was taken aback, but so drawn into the movie that I did not dare speak to my friend, but noticed that she nor I joined the chorus of laughter.

The second obvious comedic relief was when Precious brought her child, fathered by her own father, home to her waiting mother.  Her mother is very calm, smoking a cigarette and asks if she can hold the baby.  This newborn, her grandson—she looks at and states that he looks like her father.  Ironically both know that the father is indeed the father and the grandfather to this child and Precious’ firstborn daughter.  With fear in her eyes, Precious does hand the child to her mother and is ordered to get her mother something to drink.  As she turns to go to the kitchen, her mother drops the newborn on the floor and I believe throws something at her daughter.  For the first time you see Precious fight back to protect her child who lay helpless on the floor.  These two very large women begin to fight in earnest with bodies being thrown around, household items and a newborn is laying on the floor—I fear that he will be crushed.  I hear LAUGHTER again as this fight goes on and this time I really am taken aback.  I question to myself and then aloud—“What can be funny?” and this time, my friend looks at me with the same horrified look on her face, “What could possibly be funny?”

Certainly don’t want to spoil the story line but as we finished the movie, we were so struck that we sat there for a few minutes.  We talked about the weight of the movie, the issues of incest, self esteem and the road that lay ahead for Precious.  However, we soon came to a similar point of disbelief.  I said to my friend, more so than talking about the actual film, I am so struck by the reaction of the audience.  I was aghast at the fact that with the brutality, inhumanity and sheer violence demonstrated that human beings could find a reason to chuckle.  My head spun and I tried to recall lessons learned in psychology and in the general road to life.  Surely there had to be a reason why laughter was evoked…maybe it was me; maybe I had become too stiff.  However, as I sat with my friend—she agreed with me and we tried to wrap our heads around the laughter.

Precious wrote at some point when she had received horrible news about her life; “Why Me?” I asked of my friend and myself and now ask you—“Why laugh?”  Have we become so immune to violence and the state of the human condition that when faced with troubling, yes, devastating situations that we just laugh it off?  Is laughter our anesthesia or pain killer even when it’s not appropriate?  Do we laugh to keep from crying?  Have we become so immune to the horrors of life that we no longer feel empathy for another human but rather everything is a joke?  These are plausible answers but they are not good enough! Guess what—I don’t have the answer but I know that it occurred.  There is no easy way out; this is a mirror that I ask that we hold up to ourselves, our communities and our families.  I certainly am no judge and if you laughed then you have every right as you paid your money to see the film.  However, I ask that you examine yourself, your motives and your life as to how the emotion that you felt at these brutal beatings/fights was not disgust but laughter?  Have we become so immune to violence that it truly is just entertainment for us?  Have we become so connected with violence on TV, in movies and video games that it is something outside of ourselves? You may say, “Dr. Sharon, you’re taking this too far—it’s just a movie.”  I say no, it is the reality of millions of persons worldwide—domestic violence, incest and despair.
Further, this doesn’t just happen in the movies—it is in our WORLDWIDE culture; let me give you a few examples:
  • A girl in Richmond, Virginia is gang raped and others take pictures, laugh and some joined in.

    "She was raped, beaten, robbed and dehumanized by several suspects who were obviously OK enough with it to behave that way in each other's presence," said Lt. Mark Gagan, a patrol supervisor in the city's Northern Policing District. "What makes it even more disturbing is the presence of others. People came by, saw what was happening, and failed to report it."   (
  • A boy was beaten on a school bus and others point, look and laugh with no one coming to his aid.

    Several students stood around laughing and pointing. Some of them eventually did pull the boys apart. One even took a picture of the victim's bloodied face with his cell phone. One of the boys who admits he was laughing is D'Vante Lott, who says he is now suspended from school for his actions. "Every kid in high school will laugh. If you see a fight, every kid will laugh," he says. "It's like adrenaline. We laugh when we see a kid getting beaten up." (,0,3887523.story)
  • A South African girl is gang raped and forced to testify in open court wherein there is loud laughter during her testimony.

    “She then was forced to face the three accused men—and throughout her testimony, was forced to endure loud laughter which frequently burst forth from the accused men and their families and friends in the public gallery.” (
Don’t get me wrong, I love to have a good laugh and am known to be comedic myself.  However, to everything there is a time and season; brutality, criminal activity and sheer inhumanity cannot and should not cause us to open our mouths and laugh.  Laughter is defined as “A movement (usually involuntary) of the muscles of the face, particularly of the lips, with a peculiar expression of the eyes, indicating merriment, satisfaction, or derision, and usually attended by a sonorous and interrupted expulsion of air from the lungs.”
“It is impossible for you to be angry and laugh at the same time. Anger and laughter are mutually exclusive and you have the power to choose either.” --Wayne Dyer 
 I chose not to laugh, but rather felt the precious pain that was being exhibited on screen. I thought of my beloved father and his protection of me all of my life and how I could not possibly fathom your father, your protector being your violator.  I thought of my mother, who nurtured me and cared for me—caring and loving still.  How could your mother who carried you in her womb, your first human experience—how could that person become a weapon of mass destruction in your life? I choose to weep inwardly and outwardly for this character and the powerful portrayal on the screen but others chose to laugh…many with children less than 10 years old in the theatre with them listening and watching this violence.  I chose to be emotionally drawn in and to feel the pain—the excruciating pain of a life that was violently live. Others chose to laugh….and they laughed. What is OUR choice? More importantly…Why laugh?