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Exclusive Interview with Author Sapphire

Sapphire photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota.

Sapphire photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Social workers are divided over pop diva Mariah Carey’s portrayal of social worker Ms. Weiss in Precious, a movie about an abused, pregnant, overweight teen girl who finds hope through literacy.

Director Lee Daniels said he closely followed the book on which the movie is based —  Push by Sapphire.

Sapphire (aka, Ramona Lofton),  59, was born in California to a military family. According to Wikipedia, Sapphire’s mother “kind of abandoned the family.” Sapphire dropped out of high school but eventually made her way to New York City where she got a master’s degree and worked as an exotic dancer and reading and writing teacher before launching a writing career.

Social Workers Speak asked Sapphire about the portrayal of social workers in “Precious.” She answered our questions by email.

Your novel “Push,” has been turned into a very powerful and moving movie “Precious.” Are you pleased with the results? What experiences in your life inspired this story? Did you meet children such as Claireece?

I am very pleased with the movie “Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire.” I think it is a movie that makes a powerful statement about a forgotten segment of society and at the same time is a wonderful work of art. I knew many children like the main character in the book and movie. They inspired me to write the novel Push.

Social workers deal on a day to day basis with many issues addressed in your book — illiteracy, child abuse, rape etc. Did you know social workers and did that influence your creation of the character Ms. Weiss?

I know many social workers and that influenced the creation of my character Ms. Weiss. Two social workers and a social work student read the book in manuscript form before it was published and felt the portrayal of Ms. Weiss was insightful and compelling.

Some social workers who have read the book and seen the movie said they could have been represented more fairly. Some say they could have provided the services Miss Rain helped arrange for Claireece. Do you think their criticism of the book and movie are fair?

Some research on your part will uncover a lawsuit brought by eligible welfare recipients (who were) kicked off welfare and people who were eligible for but were denied welfare by the (New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani) administration. Who do you think those people turned to (as Giuliani grandstanded about reducing the welfare roles!) after social services were instructed by the Mayor’s office to deny them welfare benefits? They turned to us, their teachers, churches, and neighbors.

The unlucky had no one to turn to and some of them died on the street, starved, or committed suicide. I don’t know how many of the people you mention (who feel I created an unfair portrait of a social worker) were working in the social service system in New York in the 1980s but the failures of the system at that time are documented and the casualties were legion.

The situation has changed and hopefully it will continue to do so.

There has been much fuss made in the media about actress Mariah Carey deglamorizing her look to play Ms. Weiss? Do you think too much fuss was made about that? And does her portrayal send the message that social workers are dowdy people?

Mariah Carey is a fine actress and played the role of Ms. Weiss with wisdom, soul, and grace. I will be forever grateful to her for her fine performance.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a new novel and a book of poetry. I am also taking some graduate classes in literature in hopes of getting into a PhD program. All best, Sapphire.

To find out more about how social workers help children and teens visit the National Association of Social Workers Children and Families page and “Help Starts Here” Kids and Families Web page.

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  1. GWright, how can you ask about the portrayal of social workers in books and film when you represent us so poorly. You emailed a poet/novelist a series of questions that are positively riddled with grammatical errors!

    Here’s a fine example of a sentence that makes no sense:
    “Some say the services Miss Rain helped arrange for Claireece they would have done.”

    How embarrassing to know that NASW is representing us this way!

  2. Mog, I changed the sentence you cited above. I welcome positive and constructive criticism about the Web site. Thank you.

  3. This was my comment in response to the question posed on the NASW’s facebook page today:

    I am 38 yrs old and a P-LCSW. I remember my experiences with social workers in the 80’s. And I saw Precious last night. This movie accurately portrayed the common social worker of the day. Where do you think we got our fear of department of social services from? There are numerous documented accounts of incompetence by social workers such as demonstrated by Mariah Carey. She did a fantastic job delivering her role. Some folks are upset about the clothes she wore and how she was groomed. Social Workers have a long history of being underpaid and working long hours for “productivity.” Maybe she was a single parent…etc. The social worker has a story too. Ah! We didn’t get a peek into the social workers personal life in the movie. This was a personal story about Precious. For relevance, we only needed to witness Ms. Weiss’s work incompetence. Anyhow, the social work profession strives to hold us to higher standards and we have come a long way in trainings on topics such as empathy, safety, home visits, confidentiality, recognizing signs and symptoms, ethics, and holding social workers accountable and more. As we continue to get better at what we do we’ll see more movies portraying social workers as competent and sexxy.

  4. Interesting interview, thanks for sharing this. While I agree with Sapphire that failures in the system back in the 80s, and still present today, were adequately portrayed in the movie “precious,” I was disturbed to witness the lack of empathy expressed from Mariah Carey’s character as the social worker. They could have at least portrayed her as someone who genuinely cares about addressing the issues btw the family members, and the sevier amount of trauma precious experienced, as opposed to only being concerned about dealing with governmental monies. I have worked with several young women with similar stories as precious in the field and I certainly would never act as robotic and unemotionally concerned as the social worker behaved in the movie. The teacher character in the movie might as well have been the social worker. Maybe all social workers were incredibly burnt out back in the 80s, but its seriously depressing to see that portrayed in the film. Also what happened to CPS? why was this never a factor in the story line? To me, Mariah Carey’s character represents what NOT to do while working with clients in the field.

    Also as I have learned from others inputs, apparently we have come a long way as a profession from the 1980s. While I agree that portraying the social worker in the movie as robotic and burnt out is probably more then accurate in relation to the time period, it still gives viewers outside this field the impression that all social workers are like that since individuals outside this field are uninformed of the changes made throughout the decades. and the most disturbing part is there still ARE social workers like that, I have witnessed many myself, and like I said I find it depressing. But yes, as Suzette said, hopefully as we get better at our jobs, so will the media at portraying it. Thank god we have progressed as a profession, even if there is still work to be done.

  5. I have to disagree with the comments like, “could have portrayed Ms. Weiss as someone who genuinely cares about addressing the issues…………” This movie was not produced to cottle Social Workers and reinforce self indulging feelings that we are going to save the world with our compassion. And by the way, compassion is not changing lives. Clinical skills in conjunction with empathy promotes change.

    The Ms. Weiss “could have been” would have changed Precious’s story. Social Workers aren’t out to discount or minimize Precious’s experience.

    I think most of us could identify at least six violations committed by Ms. Weiss and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the flaws of the social worker that did the home visit.

    Furthermore, I don’t believe that Ms. Weiss was demonstrating “burn out.” She lacked working knowledge and practice about how to do her job properly. Please note, yes, in the ’80’s teachers and juvenile court counselors were doing a better job providing community-based services and linking people to resources than we were.

    I would be happy to provide several examples of this.

  6. what I will say about the movie “Precious” is that it is raw literary talent that depicts the story about afflictions to at risk families – incest, pain, hopelessness, truth, illiteracy, etc. The movie was to bring to the surface something that African-American/Black families do not speak about. As an ASW, I saw that movie from that perspective and as a native NY I identified with the social worker from the perspective that she was a reflection of a broken system (that is still working out its imperfections)…as someone new to the field, I myself am still learning and acquiring what is the best way to hone my skills in order to best serve the clients that I work with – I know that I have to work not to take it home with me but does not mean that I am not empathetic and bring the best that I have to offer work each day…

    As for the comment about the grammatical errors, we all make mistakes from time to time that we have to deal with and I believe that the author does not have to apologize for that…hey, if she was able to make it to acquire her master’s and work on the prospects of a doctorate…um, yea mistakes do happen.

    what I would challenge folks to think about is how we as professionals can eradicate and assist families to heal around topics like incest, poverty, hopelessness, illiteracy and so forth. Yes the field is not glamourous because of what it entails but the true gift is providing hope to those who seek it and are not sure that they can have it. And that makes it glamorously amazing in its own right….

  7. It seems to be so easy for social workers who don’t work for the government to judge those who do. Being mandated by law to protect, serve and support is limiting and we are not allowed the room to dream and stretch or entertain utopian concepts such as social justice. There is a place for both types of social work in this world in need. Someone has to do the difficult mandated work and then stand strongly when all the responsbility for things that go wrong is heaped upon them.

  8. I unintentionally devalued compassion in my previous comment. Proofreading could minimize my risk of “foot in mouth.” Anyhow, we have a huge population of compassionate paid professionals and unpaid supports that make a meaningful difference in peoples lives.

  9. I saw the movie and I think it was really great acting on everyone’s part. I didn’t think the portrayal of social workers was that much off from reality. As we all know professionals have a range of practice skills – however what did resonate with me is the ambiguity of the role that social workers practiced in. For instance, Ms. Weiss appeared to be practicing as a therapist, yet her office setting was not private and appeared to be that of an agency worker (cubicle). I certainly understood Ms. Weiss’ position in the scene with Precious and her mother – she was there to advocate for Precious and to force the mother to confront the realities of her neglect and abuse of her child. Ms. Weiss demonstrated human qualities of anger, frustration (of the mother’s avoidance of the issue) with a hint of attitude. Likewise, she also portrayed a human services worker that practices on a generalist level and has not reached a more advanced level of practice – these social workers exist, as do advanced practice social workers with the same demeanor of professionalism.

    I have not appreciated the role of social workers or other health care professionals in other movies that I’ve seen – “Set It Off” (starring Queen Latifah) or “John Q” (starring Denzel Washington) – however, I think these blogs and forums are necessary for us to educate the masses about what is best practice and what NASW deems as an ethical, professional, sound approach to practice social work.

    The formidable, sensitive theme of the movie made it somewhat difficult not to inject your personal approach to advocating for Precious and her children – even if you were a practicing social worker. What I thought was more salient is that at the end of the movie there should have been information (i.e., national organizations, telephone numbers) provided for the audience in case they found themselves or someone else in the same situation as Precious. Child maltreatment is a national crisis that includes prevention efforts on all levels- even community levels, therefore we have to educate people on where to go and who to contact whenever they suspect child maltreatment. Overall, It was a necessary story to be told and an awesome movie as it’s vehicle.

  10. I believe that the portrayal of a social worker in the film “Precious” wasn’t as accurate as I first thought. I have seen the film and felt that most people assume that most workers in the Social Services office are social workers; however, the case is that many of the workers in a Social Services agency are not social workers. Social workers like myself have worked hard in this profession. The most memorable scene was when the social worker was having a session with Precious and her mother, and I thought it was very powerful for the world to know that social workers have a very demanding job; however, a social worker employed at Social Services office would have not done facilitated a session that was portrayed. Social workers have many different roles in the community, and that session would have been conducted by someone who had experienced working with abused children and it would have been in a private environment. And I love how Precious herself said to the social worker that she couldn’t handle what was going on because the social worker in that situation should have referred Precious to another agency to help Precious and her mother reconnect. For the movie itself, it was beautiful and touching story, great casting of the roles, and it is a must see movie for all, especially social workers. Many social workers and other helping professionals have clients on some level like Precious and it will better prepare us to have more clients like Precious with this forever changing world. And continuing our education on working with families in abusive environments will only strengthen our profession.

  11. I want to tell my story of molestation and mental/physical abuse growing up as a puerto rican in the Bronx, NYC…

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