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Precious: A Great Film With More Backlash Than Drawbacks

14 November 2009 10 Comments

After hearing reviews from Sundance, local film festivals, and showings in one of the original eighteen markets in which it was released during its first week, I was filled with anticipation for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. On a basic level, a dark, overweight, disadvantaged heroine is something worth watching (and analyzing), and the implications of a film endorsed via executive producer credit by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are so broad that I couldn’t stay away. For these reasons, if not just for its stirring quality, I’m glad that I saw Precious.

push

We’ve heard plenty: a black, obese, illiterate teen living in the grips of an abusive home-life is pregnant with her second child by her own father. Her mother facilitates the sexual abuse and adds to it with a brand of physical assault and relentless verbal degradation that turns Precious’ young life into a cyclical, inescapable, paranoid hell of self-worthlessness and hopelessness. As the government-supported system should, it gingerly works by intruding, on an ad-hoc basis, into Precious’ aware, but fantasy-obsessed existence, whittling away at the boulder of problems that she faces. We watch, we tear up, we think about the blips on our oft-ignored radar of poverty and nihilism, and count our blessings that we aren’t one of the abused but forgotten misfits in society. The film, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, makes for great viewing. That much is undeniable.

The standout of this film is Mo’Nique, whose performance as Precious’ mother Mary could easily serve as the template for any actress portraying abused abusers with that characteristically distanced understanding of personal responsibility and how the notion of such has been influenced by their own pasts. When I say that Mo’Nique was fantastic, I don’t just mean according to my expectations; while I give director Lee Daniels credit for crafting a cast of effective characters, the Oscar buzz surrounding Mo’Nique’s performance is well-merited and with any luck her talent will find a home in future roles with this kind of depth. I also applaud the group of young actresses who portrayed Precious’ classmates – the camera loved these young women so much that their careers can’t take off quickly enough for my taste. Finally, Gabourey Sidibe mastered the title role as if she knew that parts for her type are limited, and I’m not mad at her. Not one bit.

monique-precious

However, I was almost infuriated by the casting choices made in the rest of the film. Perhaps awareness of skin color within the black community drives my interpretation of Precious, but there is no denying that every savior, every beacon of purity, everything good in Precious’ existence, came unrealistically wrapped in a biracial body. At first, I wholly accepted her desire for a “light-skinned, good haired” boyfriend, and as a big brown girl I identified with her fantasies of pulling a sponge roller out of a head of silky white hair instead of her own ponytail piece-augmented head. But with Mariah Carey as her social worker, Paula Patton as her teacher, and Lenny Kravitz as her caring obstetric nurse, I was forced to wallow in Precious’ personal pathology of black self-hate and conclude that salvation could only come from the light and beautiful. Even Precious’ infant daughter, who should have been on par in innocence with Precious herself, was cast as an unrealistically light-skinned child. This is Hollywood, where the good guys are lighter and brighter. In that sense only, Precious is more of the same.

Numerous reviews (see those by Anthony Smith and Armond White) blast Precious for its distortion of life in the black community, and question Oprah and Perry’s attachment to a film that presents such marred depictions of black life. To Smith’s credit, director Lee Daniels’ claim that “I know this chick. You know her. But we just choose not to know her,”is more of a marketing ploy than an accurate assessment of the familiarity that most black Americans will ever have with someone in such dire straits as the film’s title character. Yet, instead of taking this film, as black pundits tend to take most black films, as a catch-all depiction of a common problem, I see Precious as a unique and especially striking situation that a fictional character, who happens to be living in black space, is forced to deal with. Yes, Precious is ‘poverty porn’ – much like its non-black counterparts Slumdog Millionaire and even the classic Dickens novel Great Expectations, Precious soothes the middle class psyche into a post-viewing frenzy of counting one’s blessings and signing up to volunteer at the local youth center. As a film, however, the world that Daniels creates in Precious is nowhere near as fantastical as the aforementioned works and is as authentically black as any film I’ve ever seen.

We don’t want white folks to think there are a bunch of young ladies like Precious in our communities, but there are at least a few, and not admitting that much means sacrificing realism for the sake of constraining art to only the ‘preferred’ images of black people on-screen (and further, at least a third of the audience was just as overweight as Precious herself). If we cannot bring art with black themes out of the socially self-conscious space that black filmmaking often falls into, that where we constantly worry whether the mainstream will damn the whole of black America to the situation presented in a single film, then we continue to live as oppressed people. The endorsement of Oprah and Tyler Perry certainly led to laughter from the crown in the theater at inappropriate times, but I’m certain that these were the same viewers who applauded during the trailer for Perry’s upcoming Why Did I Get Married Too. Some people watch movies just for entertainment, and that audience will line up for Precious thanks to a credible, if not slightly suspicious, recommendation. As much as this mismatch brings black film into a tacky industry process, the knee-jerk reaction of film-goers to the endorsement cannot change the quality of Precious or it’s rightful position in the canon of black-themed art. Go see it.

10 Comments »

  • Alison said:

    When a movie like this comes along, it seems like it’s impossible to assess it in any neutral way. As Black people, we are looking from the inside and the out at the same time, balancing “does this feel true?” with “how does this look to white people?” I hardly recognise Thembi’s voice in this review of “Precious<” which suggests some self-editing, reworking, etc.

    I wonder if there is any other medium where you have to get all up under someone’s skin in order toassess its merits? “What are Oprah’s/Daniels’/Perry’s motivations? Is this kind of abuse common?” It’s like we are afraid that each big screen depiction of Black America is going to be our last. I haven’t yet read a review of the film that talks about it as you might talk about any film – was the editing effective? was there a cohesive feeling with lighting or colors or character exploration? were the actors able to help tell the story, or did they get in the way? did it hang together well? I want to hear about those things too. This is a story that hasn’t been told before, and I want to know if it was told well. Oprah and Perry, like them or not, have done a lot to ensure that all kinds of movies about Black folk, good, bad and ugly, can continue to be made. How/Why/With what ulterior motive they did it (and do it), I don’t know.

    But “Precious” isn’t about them. It’s another story about us, about Black people in America right now, and about this particular young woman. I read the book when it first came our, and it was one of the most powerful things I have ever read. So I just want to know if the story got *told* It deserves a good telling, that’s for sure.

  • Sarah said:

    I thought Mo’Nique was scary good! Why does how does “how this looks to white people” even have to be discussed? Why can’t it just be a moving and/or heart wrenching story?

  • Thembi Ford (author) said:

    @Alison

    I’m not sure what it means to “self-edit” but rest assured I closely examine everything I write. Perhaps the seriousness of this film did not merit my usual humorous tone, and writing it immediately after viewing such an emotionally taxing work definitely has some impact. However, as I said, the movie was great and something people looking for a thinking film should see. Thats the thing about this movie or should I say art house film; I’m sure that Daniels’ approach and intention was to be more artistic and thought-provoking than entertaining, and my thinking around Precious reflects that.

  • RiPPa said:

    “If we cannot bring art with black themes out of the socially self-conscious space that black filmmaking often falls into, that where we constantly worry whether the mainstream will damn the whole of black America to the situation presented in a single film, then we continue to live as oppressed people.”

    Thembi,

    I wanna say that I loved reading this entire post – it was awesome, and read with a certain poetic quality. The above quote resonates with me as it is indeed the crux of much of the issues, or dare I say angst, expressed about ourselves by ourselves. I haven’t seen the movie as of yet, but I’m looking forward to it. From the looks of it, it sounds like it is a story that must be told. I just wished it was received as positively as it was by you. But hey, that’s that internalized oppression thing for ya.

  • BluTopaz said:

    I have alternated so much re: the issue of seeing Precious as a universal story, and a Black American one as well. I disregarded Daniels comment about “we all know a Precious” as marketing. But I keep remembering all the young women I have met who have told me about the abuse at the hands of their parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc. and it’s sobering. One of my friends told me once that I was one of the few Black female friends of hers that had never been molested as a child.

    And noted Thembi, your feelings about the colorism in this film. In NYTimes Magazine Daniels candidly talked about his own color issues against dark skinned Black people. He’s quite a few shades darker than a paper bag his damn self, so I don’t know where that came from. I haven’t read the book, but from reviews from people who have they’ve stated the importance of Precious’ teacher being a dark skinned woman with natural hair. It’s disappointing that an actress who does not fit that description was cast in such a pivotal role.

  • don said:

    Haven’t taken the time to see the film but, everyone, including you in this awesome read, leads me to believe I can do nothing but enjoy the film. So I definitely look forward to checking for it Sunday.

    Of course I haven’t read the book Pusheither. Less than three weeks ago it was recommended to me while I stood inside a bookstore. I chose to purchase another book instead. Now, after hearing a few suggest that I read the book first to really capture the essence of the story, I wish I’d copped the book as well. Sista Souljah’s Midnight. But more than likely I won’t get that opportunity until after the film.

    As a man, I cannot identify with a girl being sexually abuse by her own parent. That’s scary. But I imagine it takes place more often than one would like to think. So this will be a heartbreaking story for sure. I certainly look forward to watching then turning around and letting everyone know I agree, and even advising others to hurry up and see it.

    Again, enjoyed the read.
    Thanks.

  • Alison said:

    No doubt, Thembi. I’m a bitch with wonky blood sugar and it shows in my comment. I love your writing and just missed our “voice’ in this piece – not the humor, but something else characteristically “you” – but just because I didn’t catch it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

    I really wish they’d just release the damn film so I can see it for myself! I could see “2012” everywhere, anywhere, right now if I wanted. I feel like I so rarely get to see the work of black directors, whatever the story – so my complaints about the general sociopolitical bent of the reviews comes from that perspective. And like I said, I’m just a bitch.

    Warmest regards, Alison

  • Manchild said:

    Hello Thembi,

    Outstanding post! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Precious. Keep doing what you do as only you can.

    Manchild

  • MrsGrapevine said:

    I will defend the bi-racial and light skin casting in this film, simply for cinematography symbolism. It would be great if the saviors were dark, but the contrast of light people being saviors and Precious belief that light is better, makes for a symbolic contrast in how she perceived the people that actually helped her. In her life I think she perceived everyone as being lighter than her, and to really show that, I think Lee Daniels intentionally casted lighter people around her.

    So I’m hoping this time, it’s an art. Unlike the movie Blind Side, which I can’t bring myself to want to watch.

    Lastly, my husband didn’t think it was a good film. He thought the story drove the narrative and people were only interested in hopes that there was an end or a light. He enjoyed Precious story, but didn’t feel any character other than the mother, was developed beyond that.

  • Peajai said:

    I totally agree with MrsGrapevine on the colorism. I believe we were watching this movie through Precious’ eyes, and in her eyes light was the opposite of her and therefore better. She attached herself to the lighter-skinned people and anyone dark-skinned who may have tried to help her (her grandmother, Cornrows) just faded to the background.

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