I went to see "Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push,’ by Sapphire," the buzz-worthy film with the terrible title with a certain amount of trepidation. The novel is a tale of woe which buries its protagonist, Claireece "Precious" Jones, in layers of torment and abuse. She’s a morbidly obese black teenager living in the projects in Harlem. She’s been raped repeatedly by her father, eventually giving birth to two of his children. Her mother, who’s defrauding welfare, sexually, physically and emotionally abuses her. She’s illiterate. She’s traumatized. She’s friendless. She’s been kicked out of school.
How do you visually craft a story that has such ugliness, cruelty and melodramatic arc in a way that doesn’t exploit the very people it seeks to uplift? How do you talk about poor urban life in a way that keeps your actors off the soap box? I admit it readers; I thought it was pretty much impossible.
Written by: Geoffrey Fletcher
Starring: Gabourey Sadibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton
I was unbelievably, gloriously proven wrong.
"Precious," directed by Lee Daniels, and produced by the reigning king and queen of African-American film culture Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, is not a message movie. It’s not trying to jerk tears out of its audience, or paint its main character as an infant by making her a victim. In short, it’s not doing what years of mainstream Hollywood film making has done to the depiction of urban poor. It is a movie about one young woman’s struggle to survive within the villainy and horror around her. Precious, as played by Gabourey Sadibe, is fierce and breathtakingly fragile. After being assaulted by her mother, we hear her slightly mopey, gravelly voice-over: "I cried today… But fuck that day. That’s why God makes new days."
And what a mother she has. The comedian Mo’Nique brilliantly plays Mary as a roiling, semi-psychotic pool of anger, jealousy and ignorance. She views her daughter as a sexual rival. She berates the girl for what seems like hours or days. Even when she’s just watching TV, her eyes are mean and small, flicking back and forth, looking for something, or someone to blame for the imagined slights against her. Mary is something out of a nightmare, except in your deepest heart you know that there really are women like this in the world.
Mary is juxtaposed by other people who come into Precious’s life, in a series of terrific performances. After the girl gets kicked out of school, she is referred by her principal to a special program meant to help illiterate teenagers get their GED. The class is run by a goddess-like woman named Blu Rain (the wonderful Paula Patton), and the scenes that take place in Ms. Rain’s classroom are a kind of paradise that punctuate the Hell that awaits Precious in her mother’s filthy apartment. Mariah Carey (yes, that Mariah Carey) is unrecognizable as a dowdy, exhausted social worker, and Lenny Kravitz plays the nicest nurse in the whole wide world. Even her fellow students get lovingly rendered personalities. All these people are woven seamlessly into Precious’s life.
The camera is occasionally a little too on-the-nose with the hand-held documentary style. In the better moments, however, it lingers on the people and places. It slides, liquid-like over body parts of the women who dominate the story; lips, nicotine-stained fingers, the soft curvature of hips and breasts. It manages to turn the ugliest sites — the filthy diner down the street, the cold loft building where Ms. Rain has class, the faceless apartment building where Precious lives — into something captivating and even beautiful.
Perhaps the most heart-rending thing about "Precious" is that Sadibe is most likely doomed to the one-night-only style of stardom. She will without a doubt be nominated for her role (as she should be). She might even win. But after that, what kind of work is there for an obese black woman in Hollywood? Hell, what kind of work is there for any black woman in Hollywood? When African-American film is still considered a niche market, when black women are either the standard sassy sidekicks or harping housewives, my greatest fear is that Sadibe’s grace, presence and, yes, beauty, will be put aside.
Miraculously, Daniels appears to understand the need for balance between the horror that is Precious’s life and the small joys and victories that keep her going. Precious does not get a fairy tale ending by any stretch of the imagination: the road ahead of her will be hard. She very well may not make it. But those tiny victories are enough to sustain her — enough to keep her alive. And those moments are precious indeed.