Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (review)

What Is a Real Woman?

It’s sorta fascinating and sorta depressing and sorta predictable to see how some are reacting to Precious: It’s racist, they say. It’s exploitive. It’s emblematic of liberal guilt. It’s pornographic. It’s hysterical, even.

Now, I get it: I understand that there’s a huge difference between a story, which is its own thing, and the manner in which that story is told, which can render a story unwatchable or preposterous. And I’ve certainly been on the other side of a critical divide, from which I simply cannot fathom how everyone else, it seems, is seeing something wonderful and noteworthy in a film that looks to me like the most detestable of crap.

I get it.
But in this case, I’m mystified. Because I’m not sure how a story like the one that unfolds in Precious can be anything other than the harrowing, painful, heartbreaking, explicit work that it is. How do we tell a story about the worst that a girl’s experience can be — raped by her father, emotionally and physically abused by her mother, denigrated or ignored by almost everyone around her, not to mention the entire culture at large, to the point where she has no hope and nothing to live for — if we’re not upfront about it? What happens to Precious may be extreme in that it will not and has not happened to everyone, not even to most people, but nothing that we see here is unbelievable, unless one wants to deny the hell that some women go through because of the color of their skin, their gender, or the low expectations everyone has for them. Are we simply not supposed to tell some stories because they’re too uncomfortable, or because we don’t want to acknowledge the reality of them, or precisely because they do spring from racism, sexism, and classism?

The “hysterical” comment I mentioned above really rankles, because that’s traditionally been a word used to dismiss women’s experiences. If a woman (or a movie) is “hysterical,” then there’s no need to heed her: she’s just being unreasonable. But it’s hard not to heed Precious — at least, I found it so — because she is so genuine, in her pain and in her misery and in the strength that she doesn’t even realize she has. Her real name is Claireece Jones, but everyone calls her Precious, which is a cruel joke, for there is no one who appears to care one whit for her, until she begins attending an “alternative” school, Each One Teach One, where her teacher (Paula Patton: Swing Vote, Deja Vu) is kind to her, which seems like something out of a fairy tale after what we’ve seen of Precious’s life to that point, so rife with dismal everyday horrors as it is.

While the film is told, almost relentlessly so, through Precious’s wounded gaze, anyone watching should have a greater perspective than she does: She may not understand why she’s being suspended from school merely for being pregnant (for the second time, by her father), but we understand that in 1987 Harlem (and other places), pregnant teens are so routine that her school is exasperated in dealing with them — it appears not to cross anyone’s mind that the sex that got Precious pregnant may not have been consensual, or else no one cares if that may have been the case — even if the response is equally exasperating to anyone with a real sense of what it might take to discourage young women from having babies before they’re ready. Precious may not find it strange that she is unable to read, at age 16 and regularly promoted in school, even if she is still in junior high; but we know this happens as a matter of course.

This isn’t movie-of-the-week stuff, with a plucky heroine and a happy ending. It is not sentimental, and nothing about it is sugar-coated: that would be the stuff of liberal guilt, if it attempted to assuage us that all the terrible things that can happen aren’t so bad after all, because the human spirit can nevertheless triumph over it. (Precious has spirit, but if there’s anything triumphant about how her story ends, it’s a very small, very survival-minded sort of triumph.) If a fairly straight-up, straightforward depiction of Precious’s hellish life is “pornographic” or “racist,” then surely it is more pornographic and racist that this all actually occurs in the real world? Maybe the film is is emblematic of liberal guilt… but then, are we not supposed to tell stories we should be ashamed of for fear of feeling guilty about them, when feeling guilty is not at all an inappropriate response?

None of that, however, makes Precious anything less than real: the culture she is steeped in may drive her, say, to see a pretty blond girl instead of her own self when she looks in the mirror, or to want a boyfriend who is “light-skinned,” but are those not honest reactions to everything she sees around her, everything she is subjected to? A more supportive, more loving environment may have given her the resources she needed to be able to reject the bullshit her culture has foisted on her, but when the nicest thing her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique: Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Phat Girlz), can call her is “dumb bitch,” Christ, shouldn’t we be surprised that Precious is able to muster what meager resources she can? (And shouldn’t we be able to see that Mary is, alas, a reaction to the abuse she has suffered as well? Mary is horrific, and she’s unforgivable — particularly in her final scene, which should put paid to any doubts that this former standup comic can really act — but she is the product, too, of a world that does not value women, or black people, or poor people.)

Transgressing boundaries deemed appropriate is typically what got women labeled “hysterical” in the past, and I wonder if the same dynamic is not at work here. Director Lee Daniels — working from the novel Push, by Sapphire [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], and a script by Geoffrey Fletcher — dares to give us a sympathetic heroine in Precious, even though she is obese, very dark-skinned, and massively depressed (for very good reasons). In an entertainment culture where crap like Women in Trouble — in which beautiful women, for very narrow definitions of “beautiful,” strip down to their lingerie and talk about sexually pleasuring men — is offered as an authentic and honest depiction of women, Gabourey Sidibe, and her Precious, are the real thing. Interviews and red-carpet photos readily demonstrate that Sidibe herself is gorgeous and bubbly and confident — but here, where she’s, you know, acting, she is perpetually downcast, her face burrowed into a relentless frown: why does she have to be such a downer? some are wondering.

But Sidibe is not a cover girl playing “ugly” — as, alas, Mariah Carey (Glitter) does here, frumped up as a social worker; her performance is fine, but the gimmick of it is a tad distracting. She is a real woman — Sidibe is in her mid 20s — and a real actor portraying a character. It disheartens me, but does not surprise me, that so many can fail to see even that meta aspect of this frank and unembellished film. The full breadth of what constitutes authentic womanhood is so unseen on film — from Hollywood studios and indie filmmakers alike — that when something like Precious comes along and falls outside the constricted standard, it isn’t even recognized for what it is.

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