February 27, 2010
Tyler Perry’s Crack Mothers
By CHARLES M. BLOW
Mo’Nique is a favorite to win an Oscar next Sunday for her powerful and disturbing portrayal of an abusive mother in the movie “Precious.”
If she wins, I may grit my teeth at the depraved depiction, but at least her character is merely juxtaposed with the crack scourge and isn't in fact an addict. That's heartening since the crack-addicted black mother has recently made a curious comeback.
There was a time when this character was more relevant: in the 1980s and 1990s when the crack epidemic plunged whole communities into violence, fear and chaos. (To be fair, “Precious” is set in the 1980s.) But this character now feels like a refugee of time — and discordant with the facts on the ground.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan pushed the crack-baby myth. In 1991, “Boyz in the Hood” and “New Jack City” were released. In 1995, the late Tupac Shakur released “Dear Mama” in which he rapped: “Even as a crack fiend, mama/You always was a black queen, mama.” Part of its poetry was that it was impossible to tell if this was an address or a lament.
And then there was Whitney Houston’s breathtaking decline, and her infamous 2002 “crack is whack,” “I want to see the receipts” interview with Diane Sawyer. Receipts for crack, Whitney? Poor thing.
That seemed a sort of cultural end cap, and data suggest that it was with good reason.
A National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a report released last week, found that young black adults ages 18 to 25 years old were less likely to use illicit drugs than the national average. (For those doing the math, you’re right. Those are the children born during the crack epidemic.)
Also, a 2007 study of college undergraduates published in the Journal of Ethnicity and Substance Abuse found that young blacks’ rates of illicit drug use was substantially lower than their counterparts, with black women having the lowest rates of all.
Furthermore, data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration revealed that of the total admissions to treatment services for crack use, blacks outpaced whites in 1996, but whites outpaced blacks in 2005 for those under 30 years old.
Then came Tyler Perry with his inexplicable fascination with this cliché, and his almost single-handed revival of it.
In the last five years, he has featured a crack-addicted black mother who leaves her children in two of his films and on his very popular sitcom, “House of Payne.” (In one of the films, the character is referred to but never seen.) In another film, a main character is a drug-addicted prostitute. And in yet another, a mother leaves her family for the drug dealer.
It should be noted that “Precious” is “co-presented” by Perry.
Let it go, Mr. Perry. These never-ending portrayals perpetuate the modern mythology that little has changed when much has. Even for Whitney.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described Mo'Nique's character in the movie "Precious." She was not a crack addict.
I invite you to visit my blog, By the Numbers. Please also join me on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.