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“Precious,” Social Workers, and American Culture: What the Media is Saying

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Social Workers Speak! has received more than 100 comments about  “Precious,” a harrowing film about an abused teen girl. The movie features pop diva Mariah Carey as her social worker, Ms. Weiss.

Comments have been mixed. Some social workers were put off by Carey’s portrayal while others had no problem with it. Some said the movie was exploitative while other social workers said the film put a needed spotlight on some ugly social ills, including domestic violence, illiteracy, and HIV/AIDS.

The comments from social workers reflect how the film is playing in larger public. Here’s a brief list of who is giving “Precious” a thumbs up, thumbs down, or neutral review:

THUMBS UP: Mark Blankenship of the Huffington Post probably wrote the most sensitive take on the role of Ms. Weiss. Ms. Weiss helped Claireece finally break the cycle of abuse, he said.

“That’s where the system really works. It’s too late for Precious, but because of the system’s support, she takes an action that might free her son from his mother’s miserable fate. She sets him on a path toward self-confidence and love.”

THUMBS DOWN: Juan Williams in this Wall Street Journal column says “Precious” is  just the latest iteration of “ghetto lit” — lurid escapist art for the black middle class.

NEUTRAL: The New York Times story “To Blacks, Precious Is ‘Demeaned’ or ‘Angelic,'” looks at why the movie is dividing the African American community. Some experts said the film demeans blacks while others say it is a powerful story that should be told.

THUMBS UP: Baltimore Sun critic Michael Sragow called the film “cathartic and exhilarating.” He also praised the role of the social worker Ms. Weiss in the story. “…Carey shows the catalytic strength of a social worker who completely honors her profession,” he said.

THUMBS DOWN: Respected New York Press critic Armond White said “Precious” is the most demeaning image of African Americans put on the screen since “Birth of a Nation” almost a century ago. “Shame on Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey for signing on as air-quote executive producers of ‘Precious,”” he wrote.

THUMBS UP:  Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris in his review said the film is sensational but does not exploit or condescend. But is colorism at play? Why are all the good characters, including social worker Ms. Weiss, light skinned?

THUMBS UP: The New York Times’ Richard Bernstein called “Precious” a modern-day Cinderella story. Ms. Weiss and Blu Rain, the teacher who helps Claireece learn to read and escape her horrid surroundings, are fairy godmothers.

Do you want to hold a discussion group about “Precious”? Lionsgate Studio offers this excellent discussion guide that includes statistics on many of the social issues the movie addresses:  Precious Discussion Guide

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  1. While I thought the movie was good, I hated the way the social worker (Carey’s character) was portrayed in this movie. It was very unrealistic. Her character in the movie combined roles that would never happen. Workers who work with people receiving Medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance would NEVER combine doing therapy. Therapy would never be done in an open cubical where other people could hear the conversation. The social worker’s behavior towards the mother after she revealed the depth of the abuse was very unprofessional as well. Part of the Code of Ethics is to treat every person with dignity and respect.

  2. I have been a social worker for nearly 30 years. Viewing this movie was not nearly as bad as what the book portrayed regarding the horrifying molestations and abuses Precious suffered from both parents. I thought the movie was sensitive in omitting some of these scenes. I have worked in the field of child welfare for nearly 16 years and I have witnessed far worse scenarios involving social workers than what was portrayed in the film. I thought the role played by Maria Carey was well done given the work space conditions, all she had was that moment to impact upon this girl’s life. She did not let the mother off the hook which led to Precious ability to really see her for the first time for what she was. For me it brought up a lot of questions we have been trying to address for years on various levels as to how to change the bad image social workers have in general by the public. I think we need to come together to define what clinical therapy really is for it really goes far beyond the typical 50 minute hour we have become so accustomed to as a way of doing business. There is no doubt about it. The movie depicts the uglier side of life that happens in all ethnic groups. Our system of care sometimes adds to these abuses. Instead of pointing fingers at everyone, it is time to look at what can be done to change it to a more positive experience that the public can view and feel a valued part of the equation. It is incumbent on the “we” aspect in this endeavor that can turn around the negative image most of us live with every day. Also important is the need to determine what differentiates a professional credentialed social worker from that of an eligibility or cash aid worker. We have no title protection in this area and our profession has been trying to established this as well for a very long time. In some public child welfare agencies, Master level social workers are being re-classified and essentially demoted to positions lesser than what their knowledge and skill level actually is. Not only is this demeaning to the person who worked hard to accomplish these skills, it is also demeaning to the profession to allow this to happen. This further brings about a negative impact upon children and families served by the agencies. I would love to see the Title Protection Bill revived and acted upon. This would be a great first step toward establishing a more positive image and raising the value of the human condition and how instrumental social workers can and often are very effective in meeting serious life needs. Thank you.

  3. I watched the movie today. It is a sad movie but has realistic story. Sadly, there are many children in our society going through similar situations nowadays. I did not like how Social workers were portrayed in the field. In the the field the Social Worker role was practically the person in charge to give or hold the Welfare recipients … Welfare check. When in real life there is so much more Social Workers do. In the field the Social Worker did very little to help Precious. And when Precious reported physical and sexual abuse no action was taken by the social worker. This type of negative publicity is discouraging.

  4. Many people have had bad experiences with social workers. That’s just a fact. Who are we to criticize our “portrayal” in other people’s stories? Artists don’t have a responsibility to portray social workers or anyone else in a particular light. We don’t have the right to ask storytellers to improve our image for us, that’s absurd.

  5. Mariah Carey’s portrayal of a social worker was not accurate and misleading. My 30 years experience as a social worker in mental health, medical and geriatrics would not have allowed a welfare social worker to attempt therapy and would have referred the family to a therapist for counseling. This case was far too complex to be handled by the social worker in the movie.

  6. Although I was not happy in the way in which social workers were depicted in the movie Precious, I was not surprised. Traditionally social workers have not been depicted positively in movies and this was not the exception. This was clearly seen through the role that the social worker that went into Precious’ house played. The fact that Precious’ mother was able to put on a whole act and the social worker believed it, made social workers look as incompetent and stupid people that can easily have the wool pulled over their eyes. Further, based on the fact that Precious’ teacher was the one to help Precious leave her abusive home, made it appear that the social workers in her life did not do their job and therefore, Precious’ teacher had to take over and be the one to protect this minor. This shows that we as social workers need to work together to change the negative ways in which the media continuously depicts us to be. This continuous depiction serves to feed on negative images on people about social workers which then makes them hesitant to work with us and believe in the work we do.

  7. The movie was great because it brings attention to children who fall between the cracks in the child welfare system. However, I did not like the way the media portrayed social workers it was not accurate . The movie was unclear who was the social worker assigned to this family since there were two social workers and a social worker attempting therapy in a non private area where confidential information is being exchanged is a violation of HIPPA.

  8. I felt that it was unclear in regards to who the social worker was that was assigned to Precious’ family. I also thought that the social workers were made to look like they were somewhat incompetent and unable to find out information the way that the mother was able to fool her when she came into the home. I felt that the movie depicted the teacher as being caring and loving, however the social worker that came into the home was not portrayed that way at all. As far as the second social worker played by “Mariah Carey” I was confused as to what she was. Did she belong to the welfare department giving them financial assistance or was she a social worker? I think that they could have done a better job portraying the hard and significant work that social workers do in ensuring children’s safety. I only saw one social worker go into the home one time so it made it seem like social workers only approve government assistance for money, instead of actually showing the social worker in the home trying to protect that child from the abuse she was sustaining. Overall, I thought that the movie did bring light to some real things that are going on in this world that people either overlook or do not actually believe are happening.

  9. I have been working for the department of children and family services for about 5 yrs and have witnessed many simiiar cases to this one. I think having this movie in the movie theaters is a great thing, in order to educate people who are not involved in our profession. This movie will allow people to realize the types of things we deal with on a daily basis. I think this movie will educate everyone who is working with children to pay closer attention to child abuse and to try to more helpful of children in similiar situation. At the same time I believe the social workers in the movie where shown to be useless and inaccurate in the type of work they do. Social workers who work for DPSS from what I know in LA county do not investigate or do therapy with clients in an open cubical next to other people without confidentiality. I also believe the workers, including numerous other people like the teacher who was extremely helpful, should have reported to CPS in order to protect the child “Precious” so that she would not have been abused for 14 yrs of her life. I think this story was sad but at the same time a real story of many children all over the world. Overall I believe it was a good movie for people to see.

  10. I watched the film on Saturday and I was very impressed with the sobering, harsh reality of the film. This movie is exactly why I decided to go into social work; in order to promote change. I could relate on so many levels as a woman, an African American, and as a product of a failed child welfare system. The film Precious invoked it’s audience and ultimately made mainstream society reflect on what goes on in impoverished, low socio-economic communities which ultimately lack resources and culturally competent case workers. The intake assessment, which took place in the home was inappropriate and it exhibited signs of environmental failure to thrive. The social worker did not ask to speak with her client (Precious) privately, nor did she do a thorough psychosocial assessment. I was appalled by the social workers in this film. The character Mariah Carey portrayed represented a burnt out social worker who lacked sympathy and compassion. She did not offer hope to Precious until the very end, and by that time her teacher had already made a greater impact. Mariah Carey should be commended for playing such a difficult role, yet unfortunately her character is all too familiar within the child welfare system. As a future helping professional, who has spent 11 years in the foster care system and have been forced to work with social workers like many portrayed in this film, I am elated that I chose this field. We are the change that we seek, and I am determined to make a prominent mark in the field of social work. I am determined to eliminate the negative image that many social workers get today. I am happy that films such as this are being made- to shed light on the pitfalls of social services, and to ultimately to fire up and excite future social workers like myself to demand change. I challenge YOU as helping professionals to be unique- show empathy, & compassion, invoke change and recognize that we are in a new era. The policies of the past have been detrimental to many children (like Precious) who are trapped in the web of the child welfare system. I welcome the new generation of social workers- In the Words of our Amazing, President, ‘WE ARE THE CHANGE THAT WE SEEK.”
    Respectfully Yours

  11. I think that the portrayal of the social worker Mrs. Weiss in this movie was not really to critique what we do as social workers, or the lack thereof, but merely to show what people could have viewed social workers (overworked, stressed, cold, unfriendly) at that time. Overall though, the movie was great and very inspiring.

  12. I am not sure if the writers of the Movie Precious had any experience working with social workers, because the role of the social worker was not accurate. I am sure a professional social worker would have interviewed Precious in a private place, not in a cubical. A Social Worker would also have followed up after the first interview, not simply allowed the abuse to continue. However, the movie also made a point to bring to light some of the challenges many families face, such as domestic violence, poverty prevalent among people of color, teenage pregnancy, child abuse and neglect, and illiteracy. Additionally, it brought to light how the educational system continues to fail our children.

  13. As a social worker who has been working with CPS for the past five years, I do not agree with the portrayal of the social worker. I understand that the story takes place in the 80’s so I am certain that in order to add to the impact of the story the social worker would not be portrayed in a positive manner. Despite this fact I hope those who view the film can take something away from it and become advocates for children who are caught in the system.

  14. The commercial identity of social workers obscures the true identity of social workers by presenting the wrong image. As a result, some people may assume that social workers are like the stereotype version. According to Nam (2001): “Regardless of how much you differ from a stereotype, people will always see you in light of how you ‘should be’ according to the images carried through television and movies.” (p.260). Again, even though most social workers do not act the same way, people expect them to be a certain way. In the movie “Precious” the social worker is portrayed as uncaring. For example, when Precious states, “he [my father] gave me his baby and the one before,” the social worker should have reported it to the child welfare services. However, since the social worker in the movie did not do so, the people in the audience are sent the message that all social workers do not care about helping people and thus, people would be reluctant to trust social workers and seek help from them.
    I believe that the media should portray real stories of social workers to help erase distorted images like the ones presented in the movie “Precious,” which can prevent individuals from having healthy relations with social workers and hinder the ability of social workers to help future clients.

  15. I think the Social Workers in this movie were not portrayed in an accurate manner–there was only one worker who came into the home and asked a few questions, did not speak to Precious privately, and was willing to basically schedule her next appointment. When Precious’ mother asked about when she would be coming next and wanted the worker to give her a heads up I would think red flags should have came about for the worker.It seemed like the worker was more concerned with the appliances in the home rather than the children. It suprised me that no one bothered to ask Precious who the father of her children were. This movie showed how the system failed this girl–she was abused for so many years and yet she was still in the home–no teachers nor school counselors nor doctors reported anything.

  16. I feel that Precious is an important film in terms of addressing numerous child welfare and social work issues such as mental illness, obesity, poverty, abuse, neglect, incest, teenage motherhood, illiteracy, and HIV.

    In terms of how social workers were portrayed, I felt that because the characters weren’t written to specifically be uncaring or mean, their failures in the areas of being thorough, confidential, empathetic, and in providing resources made them seem all the more incompetent and useless in making a difference.

    Most importantly, and what redeems the negative aspects of this film for me, is that it gives a voice and a face to the thousands of children like Precious that exist at this very moment. For those that can relate to Precious’ situation, the film also offers some hope that no matter how grim your circumstance, a better future is possible.

  17. I’m stunned that there are not more films like this. 3 million children a year are reported to child protection in the U.S. annually.

    My 12 years as a volunteer guardian ad-Litem showed me many children with stories this moving.

    I went on to write a book and speak at the United Nations about it. More needs to be said, more needs to be done.

  18. I loved this painful yet ultimately inspiring film. The acting was superb for each role played. I was especially pleased to see the portrayal of the social worker at the welfare center. A case worker is not always a BSW or MSW. Society sees a case worker as a social worker, Mariah Carey acting and her role exemplified a believable person with integrity, kindness, smarts and skills. She embodied a seasoned worker who has learned to metabolize extreme, intense and painful human stories and, situations and tragedies. She is then able to figure out how to intervene for the benefit and protection of her client. The portrayal was realistic when I think of my clinical and case management experiences…one we as social work professionals can be proud of. After all, we actually have the opportunity to come through for people in our careers…never as much as we’d like to, but sometimes we do. We have an honorable place in our society. I’m pleased to have felt that the movie “Precious” showed us respect along with a life story that is all too familiar to those of us who work close to those stories on one capacity or another.

  19. I just viewed the DVD of the movie “Precious”. I have also read the other posts on this site about Mariah Carey and her portrayal of a welfare social worker. I have worked in the welfare system for over 30 years and Mariah Carey portrayed a front line welfare case worker in most welfare systems accurately. I think for clarification of roles, it would have been helpful for a distinction between a case worker (eligibility for welfare – college degree not required in all states), a home visitation worker (college degree/no therapy) and a licensed social worker (Masters degree who can provide therapy/counseling to an individual/family). Having worked as a former eligibility worker for welfare assistance; a welfare case manager; case manager supervisor; family development worker and as a family development supervisor, one becomes exposed to various “life situations” of the family. The front line welfare eligibility worker generally sees the family member in an office environment with conversation centered around eligibility factors for welfare benefits only. Confidentiality is attempted but office space utilized for interviewing is not always as “confidential” as it should be. Home visitation programs generally schedule visits in advance with the family. These visits may focus more toward family self sufficiency/child welfare verses the holistic approach that is needed to work with a family. The home visits can reveal information about the family, but most of the time this requires a level of trust between the family members and the home visitor. This was well portrayed in the movie when Mary’s mom brought “Mongo” to the home so the home visitor would see the child. Mary & Precious pretend to have a good home environment and neither were willing to share information other than what was asked – I found this scene to be very typical! These home visits rarely give a true picture of a family & the issues in the family, but more of a “snapshot” in time. The family can “stage” the home visit and present an environment that supports what is allegedly “expected” by the home visitor. Due to the volume of assigned clients, staff shortages, paperwork, and time constraints many home visitors tend to address only those issues that are known and don’t look for the deeper issues that have not been revealed.

    In the family development program I supervise, my staff and I are considered to be in a paraprofessional role. We all have four year college degrees but are not required to be licensed. We do not provide therapy but we, like Mariah Carey’s character, sometimes have to deal directly with difficult issues when they are presented. Most of the staff have experienced families with issues very similar to Precious and her family. In a perfect world, we would be able to have licensed social workers working with all families in the welfare system; but this is not the case. Those of us on the front lines of working with families are not always prepared for the situations/issues that we are expected to work on with families. Unfortunately, the current welfare system does not tend to look beyond giving financial assistance, work participation requirements, and child protection for a child in imminent danger only. State budget cuts, lower pay for “social work”, lack of public outcry, and the secrecy of some of these issues makes this movie important in brining these issues and the work of social workers to the attention of the general public.

    I applaud Sapphire for writing “Push” and to Lee Daniel for his courage in bringing the story of “Precious” to life. Hopefully, this movie will create conversations that will bring the issues of poverty and the challenging social issues in this movie to the light. I especially want to THANK all the “social workers”, regardless of title, who go into the “darkness” to address these issues/situations on a daily basis and for the courage to continue the ongoing fight to end poverty.

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