Precious: A Great Film With More Backlash Than Drawbacks
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.
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.
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.