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

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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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Fri, Nov 13, 2009 7:16pm

MaryAnn, let me be the first to say this is a terrific review. You’ve addressed so many attitudes that this film brings out in people. Thank you for adding some wonderful rationality to the discussion. I’ve been looking forward to this movie since it made the rounds at film festivals. I know it will be a tough watch, but the story it tells needs to be told. Thanks for an even-handed, thoughtful review.

Accounting Ninja
Accounting Ninja
Fri, Nov 13, 2009 7:29pm

I’m so grateful that you reviewed Precious and Women in Trouble at the same time, so we can see the contrast. Was this on purpose?

Fri, Nov 13, 2009 9:47pm

Read the book! Somtime movies and book bring humanity to a crule and cold world. Painful story but envokes open discusion of pain that is real

Fri, Nov 13, 2009 10:47pm

I’m so grateful that you reviewed Precious and Women in Trouble at the same time, so we can see the contrast. Was this on purpose?

Not really. Just happy coincidence.

Sat, Nov 14, 2009 12:52am

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?

I think the criticism is that this story is not real. It’s like 24, a ludicrously stacked worst case scenario. Or so I gather, as I have not seen it.

This is the only coherent paragraph in Armond White’s customarily overwritten review:

Worse than Precious itself was the ordeal of watching it with an audience full of patronizing white folk at the New York Film Festival, then enduring its media hoodwink as a credible depiction of black American life. A scene such as the hippopotamus-like teenager climbing a K-2 incline of tenement stairs to present her newborn, incest-bred baby to her unhinged virago matriarch, might have been met howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem’s Magic Johnson theater. Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation, whereas too many white film habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority—and relief—it allows them to feel. Some people like being conned.

In any case, I’m curious to see it now.

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
Sat, Nov 14, 2009 5:17am

I haven’t seen the film yet either – not out in my country for a while yet – but that paragraph makes me wonder who gets to decide which depictions of African-American life are or are not ‘real’.

I mean, Armond White leads a life which most black people in America won’t recognise, if only because most people (of any race) don’t work as film critics – but he gets to decide that Lee Daniels, Oprah Winfrey, Mo’Nique and all the other black people who worked on this film (not to mention Sapphire, the source author who based her novel on stories she’d heard from friends and acquaintances) are Being Black Wrong? Why is that?

Another issue it raises: what’s so great about being ‘realistic’? I remember when Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible was at Cannes, Noe described it as a kind of horror movie influenced by Expressionist cinema at first. But as soon as the attacks started flying, everyone reverted to type: “Noe is showing real life! You critics in your ivory towers can’t handle the truth!” But he wasn’t, and they could. If Lee Daniels had come out and said he sees Precious as a Grand Guginol horror film, would it be any better or any worse?

Sat, Nov 14, 2009 8:35am

This is one of your best reviews, period.
I can’t wait to see this film.

Sat, Nov 14, 2009 9:24am

I think the criticism is that this story is not real. It’s like 24, a ludicrously stacked worst case scenario. Or so I gather, as I have not seen it.

Yes, that has been the root of many of the complaints, and of course it’s no defense to say that Sapphire based her novel on real girls she met as a teacher in Harlem, because truth is not the same thing as plausibility in a fictional narrative.

But I don’t think it’s fair to liken the movie to a *24*-style worst-case scenario — *Precious* is not packed with one wildly unlikely event after another. It’s packed with a series of very real things that happen to real girls and women all the time. And even if *Precious* adds up to a worst-case scenario, even *that* is still a not-uncommon one (unlike a *24* worse-case scenario).

I think we’ve already come to the conclusion that Armond White is a professional troll, but since he’s not actually here, I’ll take the chance on feeding him:

too many white film habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority—and relief—it allows them to feel. Some people like being conned.

Wow. Way to stereotype the white folks. Sense of superiority? Relief? That’s nothing at all like what I felt, watching the film. (Hey, but maybe I conned myself into believing that.)

Oh, and, way to stereotype the black folks, too:

Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy

All black people think like Armond White?

credible depiction of black American life

Is there only one kind of black American life?

Perhaps White is under the mistaken impression that *Precious* is meant to be a generalized depiction of “black American life.” As far as I can see, it’s an intimate depiction of one girl’s life. Yes, she is black, and that impacts much of what her life is, but for anyone to extrapolate this to encompass the experience of everyone who is black in America is ridiculous. No one is doing that, and you’d have to be a moron to think this movie is attempting that.

Then again, White is a troll, and likely does not believe most of what he’s saying.

Sun, Nov 15, 2009 9:54am

I just came from the movie and I want to address the reality aspect. I agree with the review for it is indeed a very real portrayal of abuse. I know many precious and though it was hard to watch, it wasn’t as bad. Precious had it good. At sixteen she knew who the evil people in her life were. The lack of education and sophistication of her tormentors made it easy for her to get up and leave…and with hope. There are women out there born into abusive households, abused since three until twenty thirty forty because the evil abusers use their education and sophisticated methods to create crazymaking. Let me say that when a single fifty year old woman tells you she spends holidays with her abusive parents because yeah they abused her but they also paid for her medical school, or helped her buy her home or took her on a safari you know how someone is made crazy. There is some abuse that is indeed irreparable and one just hopes that the crazys died all single and childless.

Sun, Nov 15, 2009 3:02pm

I think the criticism is that this story is not real. It’s like 24, a ludicrously stacked worst case scenario. Or so I gather, as I have not seen it.

Having worked in social services, I can tell you that, quite honestly and sadly, true “stacked scenarios” are more common than you might think (and they are absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking). It’s like that quote: “Truth is stranger than fiction; fiction has to make sense.” True victimization of a person is often recurrent and it doesn’t always make sense. In most fiction movies there does have to be that nice little tie up at the end where the protagonist leaves the situation, but in reality that isn’t always what happens.

In any case, I haven’t seen the movie, but it definitely sounds like something that I want to see. Thanks for the great review MaryAnn.

Sun, Nov 15, 2009 6:15pm

Having worked in social services, I can tell you that, quite honestly and sadly, true “stacked scenarios” are more common than you might think

That’s sort of the nature of such abuse, though, isn’t it? Abused people turn around and become abusers themselves; and abused people often don’t understand that the abuse they suffered is not normal, which makes them vulnerable to further abuse. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle for some people (not everyone).

It’s like that quote: “Truth is stranger than fiction; fiction has to make sense.”

That is true. Still, the fictional story of Precious is not nonsensical: it works as a story, too. At least for me.

Mon, Nov 16, 2009 2:19am

I also want to thank you MaryAnn. After talking with my wife we’re going to make an effort to see this movie, though we’d not heard of it before reading this review. I’m not sure if it will have a positive impact on me or not, whether I’ll ever be able to do anything with that positive impact, or even if I’ll make it through the film. I do know that if this film is as, well, “real” as you describe it that it will become a strong recommendation for my circle of friends.

I think of myself as understanding and empathetic and able to relate to any situation but the reality is that I really am the “superior” white film habitué that has been alluded to. Any chance I get to break down that glass wall I will take.

I’m not looking forward to it. I really do hope this movie can affect change.


Mon, Nov 16, 2009 5:01pm

Having worked in social services, I can tell you that, quite honestly and sadly, true “stacked scenarios” are more common than you might think (and they are absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking).

I was going to write that it seemed to me, intuitively, that these kinds of circumstances would naturally tend to ‘stack’, because one bad circumstances creates the environment in which more can occur, which then enables further abuse. I mean, how likely does it sound that a girl could be a victim of repeated incest, but nothing else in her life is wrong? That she could have a mother who was normal, instead of herself so abused and low in self-esteem that she can project it onto her daughter and allow the abuse to continue? That her school wasn’t so uncaring that they would never even notice something was wrong, much less find out why and call Child Protective Services? It’s possible, but it actually seems less likely to me.

It just seems like for people in bad circumstances, there’s rarely only one or a few things wrong. It’s many things that maybe started from one, but snowballed.

Thank you for validating that view with reality, though this is another case I’m not happy that my intuition is correct.

But for the naysayers, I don’t think this is a case of “Truth is stranger than fiction”. I think it’s a case of “Truth is stranger than some sheltered, privileged person’s self-serving imagination of what truth is”.

These people are experiencing the opposite of liberal guilt: “I don’t know about it, therefore it doesn’t happen, therefore your showing me this thing is an underhanded attempt to make me feel bad about something that doesn’t happen, therefore I’m offended.”

Mon, Nov 16, 2009 9:09pm

I want to thank you for a thoughtful and probing review. I work in the medical profession and can say with complete certainty that there are real-life stories just as bad (and in some ways, worse) as this story.

I would ask anyone that doubts the real-life relevance of this movie and its story to do something selfless and volunteer for others in a similar situation. Be a big brother/sister, tutor a child, volunteer at a clinic or shelter. Maybe many people in my generation (i’m in my 20’s) are so selfish and cynical that they don’t care to confront such stories, or even conceive them as possible.

Tue, Nov 17, 2009 5:37pm

Great review.

Without having seen it, I volunteer at a suicide hotline and it’s not so unusual or “a ludicrously stacked worst case scenario”.

steve carter
steve carter
Sat, Nov 21, 2009 7:54pm

come on white lady be honest.lets call precious what it is, miseryporn.It is only art in the sense that all art is propaganda.This is American caste propaganda where to be “black” is to always strive for mere existence while to be “white” is to dream and explore the possibilities within, like having a romance with a vampire or having a romance while working as an assistant editor at a New york based fashion magazine.America is a nation of poseurs and play actors.We wouldn’t know how to cross the street without without the artificial experience of mass entertainment.for instance in that silly review you were probably channeling Scarlet Ohara when you used “one whit” as in “since no one appears to care one whit for her”.That was your tell.Face it there would be no buzz about this afterschool special from hell if Precious were “white”.Were it filmed it would never get released.especially during an economic recession. If white precious happened to get released,it would have been ignored by most critics.Black Precious however is the flip side of escapism like the twilight sagas, The Education or Young Victoria.They validate “white” folks. Gaborurey Sidibe will help even the saddest white female feel like a Nicole Kiddman type ,not unlike the way Hattie Mcdaniels of Gone With The Wind still help sad white females feel like Vivien Liegh.This is what’s “uplifting” about this miseryporn.

Sat, Nov 21, 2009 10:31pm

Face it there would be no buzz about this afterschool special from hell if Precious were “white”.Were it filmed it would never get released.especially during an economic recession. If white precious happened to get released,it would have been ignored by most critics.

First of all, the white lady has a name Mr. Carter; it’s at the top of the page. Is this movie meant to make viewers feel better about themselves because they are more fortunate than Precious and are able to look down on and feel sorry for her? I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know. However, if what you’re saying is true, most white viewers never identify with Precious, never think, “I have also felt unloved, ignored, and/or ashamed of my body.” I find that hard to believe.

The closest thing I can think of to a “white Precious” is Bubble or maybe Welcome to the Dollhouse. Both of those movies received mainly positive reviews, but you’re right in saying that the critical reception and buzz for this movie is more pronounced because most of the actors are black. This might simply be because there are not many well-made movies produced with mainly black actors and/or about the life of a physically unattractive woman. The guilt that wealthy white Americans have about racism probably is also a contributing factor, but is it the only factor?

I agree that most people in America are more comfortable with the idea of an overweight black girl (or skinny Indian boy) living in poverty and victimized by violence than a white person in the same circumstances. I also agree that racism is still a powerful force in the US and will remain so for the rest of my life, although we’ve come a long way and are slowly improving.

But at the end of the day, the execution of the idea makes all the difference. Two filmmakers could take the basic plot and characters of any film and produce completely different movies. The same director could take a script with two different casts and make completely different movies. Are you claiming that there is no way to make a movie about a character like Precious without it being pure propaganda? Isn’t that being unfair to all of the artists involved? Do you truly believe that execution counts for nothing at all or is there something about the way that this particular movie is made that irks you?

You dislike mass entertainment. Okay, that’s a start. What would you consider worthwhile entertainment to be? What specific changes would you make to this movie in order to enlighten the poseurs, play actors, and white ladies in the audience? You have a problem with this movie. What is a possible solution?

Sat, Nov 21, 2009 11:19pm

OK, I saw this last night with a friend in a packed theater, and that was the 10:50 show. The three previous ones were sold out before we got to the multiplex and it was showing on two screens.

It is a very powerful movie. It hit a lot of buried but raw nerves for me because my mother had been brutally abused in a similar way and I’ve been dealing with this legacy all my life. My mother did a heroic job of trying to stop the cycle, but, it is impossible to be perfect. It also brought up a lot of things for my friend.

I don’t think some smarmy after school special Problem film could have affected us so and I think that this review is spot on. My friend agrees with you about Mariah Carey’s presence, MAJ. Since I am so oblivious to much of pop culture, I didn’t recognize her right off and by the time I realized it was her, I was invested in her character being there.

I’ll tell you, the audience was probably 50-50 black and white, and 50-50 female and male. There are so many issues that were part of the characters’ lives and I wonder what all the conversations after the movie were like.

Fri, Nov 27, 2009 6:38pm

audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation

Oh, for fuck’s sake, Armond White.

Considering that the main audience for Tyler Perry’s ludicrous, overloaded and genuinely “hysterical” (in all senses of the word) films is mostly black, I really wonder if he really knows enough about black people to appoint himself spokesman for the entirety of his race.

As for Precious, I think the best defense against the “hysterical” charge is the reality of the performances. Regardless on how you feel about the plausibility of the situations presented, if you feel the performances were fake, you weren’t paying attention.

Albert Hahn
Albert Hahn
Tue, Dec 01, 2009 5:02am

South Park had a neat scene where the kids thought there was nothing wrong with a flag that showed four white guys hanging a black guy. A confounded Chef finally realizes that the kids were only seeing four people hanging one person. Like the South Park kids, I saw only people in this excellent movie. There’s white trash and black trash. They are both trash. Unlike somebody commented here, there are all sorts of white dysfunctional monster families portrayed in movies.
All those movies have to be good, not black.
Great ‘niques in this movie, both tech and Mo’.
Two things I didn’t like about the script.
#1. Mo’Niques facile plot tying up at the end rivalled the worst of Perry Mason scripts.
#2. Dang, I forget the other thing.
Anyway, Mo’Nique for the Oscar. Anybody know
if she would be up for Actress or Supporting Actress?
I heard Mariah Carey discuss her role on Larry King
before seeing the movie yet I still didn’t realize I had watched her till this review!

Thu, Dec 03, 2009 9:18pm

Just saw it this afternoon. The theater was almost empty-too bad. There’s all kind of elements to this movie (obviously). Actors were mainly Black,alright,but so what.There is enough going on about our system failures(not to mentioned warped values[what’s ugly,etc.]) to have anyone be captivated.

I liked the interludes of her glitzy fantasies. It worked to keep me from drowning in her “bummer after bummer.” Sort of like the tension/release formula,
in an action or horror movie.

Every teenager should see it. Seriously.

steve carter
steve carter
Sun, Dec 06, 2009 5:10pm

I don’t know how many blackladies will read this comment and it’s not my place to tell blackladies how to think but if I were you I’d be leery of any of your “white friends” who claim to like this movie on artistic or storyline grounds, cause if she does she’s either dumb as a box of rocks or she aint completely honest.A true friend will tell you the truth.There is an old saying in poker “if you look across the table and don’t see the chump,the chump is you” likewise if you believe in a darwinian competition for mates “if you look across the table and don’t see Precious, you are Precious”.Like it or not Precious is the latest advertisement for the black female brand.What ever you may think of Precious’s “artistic merit” this is more the rule than the exception to the way we see blackwomen in the movies.When people suggest like Mr.Southpark that they didn,t see color or that the variety of ways whitewomen are portrayed is comparable to how blackwoman are portrayed,they are .not thinking critically or worse they are disingenuous to hide a tired schadenfreude directed against blackwoman as LaRochefoucauld said “we all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others”.crocadile tears notwithstanding.You can see a sad fat ugly whitewoman anywhere except on the silver screen.The silver screen discriminates against sad fat ugly whitewoman.It also discriminates against upbeat sexy beautiful blackwoman. No comment on aesthetically nonthreatening woman like Hally Barry and Thandie Newton.We all know what a cold joke that is.People with white identities woman included don’t shell out hard earned recession dollars to see pathetic fat ugly whitewoman up on the screen,especially on a Fridaynight date.But we accept a freak show starring people with black identities.So yeah I think this is a lousy movie.It’s misery porn with a cowardly message to little dark complexioned blackgirls.ABANDOND ALL YE HOPE.It sucks to be you,deal with it!Leave the dreams of love,romance,adventure and sense of infinite possibilities to your white and wannabe whitegirlfriends ….PS not all whites are buying this crap although it may seem so.

Mon, Dec 07, 2009 7:42pm

I loved this review, but I do have something I’d like to add to it. If anything, what lent *Precious* real universality was the fact that its main character struggled against evils that weren’t specifically reserved for people of color, poor people, women, or anyone belonging only to any other group, but to members of the human race in general. For instance, Mo’nique’s character, Mary Jones, isn’t the same race, and she isn’t *quite* the same socioeconomic class, but other than that, she *is my mother*. She could have studied my mother for years to come up with that performance. It was a complete copy of her exact personality.

The truth is that right is right and wrong is wrong and abuse is abuse, no matter what kind of skin it comes packaged in. People make moral choices no matter what kind or degree of pressure they may be under, and that, I think, was the clear message by the end of this film. Mary Jones revealed that she knew she was enabling the abuse to occur and continue, but that she let it go on and was guilty because of that. We are MORE than just the sum of all of the terrible things that have happened to us; we are unique individuals. We do have choices and we do make choices, and they do matter. That’s what keeps *Precious* from being just another feel-good by-the-numbers movie of the week.

steve carter
steve carter
Wed, Dec 09, 2009 10:24pm

I don’t contest the fact that evil exist.what I object to is the use of black woman as social cannonfodder.It is contemptable for sad white and wannabe white woman to have to use last century’s caste iconography to play off against.You shouldn’t have to shit on young dark complexioned black woman to help you feel “pretty”.The greatest psychic hurdle young dark complexioned woman have always had to overcome is the “stay on message” of black inferiority from Hollywood.We live in the greatest most free country in the history of humanity.Lets have a little more faith in ourselves and stop relying on slick caste propaganda for social cohesion.Let the free market of ideas control our destiny not fear.

Scentsy movie lover
Wed, Dec 16, 2009 11:53pm

Everyone needs to calm down. This is a refreshing view on this movie and I now WANT to see it. Thanks!

Mike Russell
Sun, Dec 20, 2009 3:42pm

Thanks for the wonderful review, and it’s especially heartening to see it from a fellow Doctor Who fanatic. I just saw the movie today, though I’ve loved the book for years.

While teaching for five years in a tough inner city high school in Philly, I loaned several copies of Push to my students, and the copies walked because the story’s truth hit my kids where they lived. I was able to teach it once to a class of students who were taking English 2 for the second time. Some had had me the previous year, and I knew the mandated curriculum was absolutely not going to mean anything to the desperate children in my care. And I reached more students with Sapphire’s novel than I did with anything in the English 2 curriculum. Fortunately for me, my very hostile principal never found out that we read it out loud in class.

I wrote a novel inspired by what I saw of my students’ lives, but I wanted to give it a lot more fire and passion than the usual “realistic“ literary novel. I’ve been blogging it here: Push strongly influenced me, though I avoided copying it because you don‘t respect great art by slavishly imitating it but by letting it inspire you to take your own path.

Anyway, the movie mostly captured the book’s fire, thought it softened it a bit, made a few points more indirectly. The casting for Precious was absolutely brilliant; she was just as I had envisioned her when reading the book. My only concern is that the good adults in Precious’ life were all played by light-skinned performers, and I hope that coincidence was unintentional.

I fully agree with you that the movie’s detractors are largely missing the point. Some stories are extreme and need to be told as directly as possible. Would these same critics condemn Medea or Oedipus for how far they went?

Sun, Dec 20, 2009 8:17pm

Yup, occasionally lost in overexposure of discussion and not the real problemo in every situation: “Low Self esteem.”
Sometimes, it’s the main problem, along with a lack of options. Visit Hawaii sometime. WE have hundreds of “Polynesian Precious Wahines,” in the low income areas.The movie is universal. The parental abuse is widespread (lack of education).An occasional hard hitting reminder as this movie can be, prevents sliding back into a calloused view that it’s their unchangeable, hopeless, tough banana. Movies can be the brainwash,adding to the warped perspective of these gals looking to Precious’s mirror image fantasy (Euro, fair skinned, thin and upper class), but as good ol'(sexist-I know) Picasso
said,”Art can be a weapon for attack and defense against the enemy.”

I was reminded.

Thu, Jan 07, 2010 2:43pm

Great review. Really well argued points. Thanks for the good read.

The fact that this movie made it into some mainstream theaters in the US is testament to the power of its backers (Oprah, Tyler, and the handful of name stars involved in supporting roles). In other countries movies that much moreso than Precious fit the “freakshow” label get made routinely, and then people in the US overlook them just as routinely.

But I and others gleefully seek them out for the antidote they provide to mainstream industrial US entertainment products.

So I, for one, am very happy to get to see a movie that has some coherence of artistic vision (whether I personally groove on that vision or not) in a suburban US multiplex next door to movies that have been “focus group-ed” and “studio note-d” within an inch of the lowest common denominator bottom line.

Robert P
Robert P
Sun, Mar 07, 2010 6:43am

MAJ said

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

I guess I’m a bit surprised to hear this from MaryAnn the über feminist. Dunno, I guess I would have thought you’d applaud it. Certainly, Mariah is cast because of the appetite to see stars from one arena in another. But what you’re seeing is the real, unglittery Mariah. I.e. not frumped up but de-glam’d. Take away the concert lighting, stage hair & makeup, the showbiz duds & push-up bras – this is what she’d look like if she had gone into teaching or social work – or no doubt if you were to catch her skulking about incognito in Walmart.

Steve Carter said

Face it there would be no buzz about this afterschool special from hell if Precious were “white”.

Just as a historical aside two made for tv ventures that I seem to recall made quite a lot of buzz were “Sybil” and “Something About Amelia” both about abuse of white girls.

But a white girl wouldn’t have fit this story exactly as written. It was intended to be a black girl.

On the racism theme – I don’t claim to be a film aficionado but my impression is when you hear “buzz” about blacks in film it’s almost always about “black” subjects. Poverty/ghetto strife, the civil rights movement, slavery, gangs. Or if subjects in the U.S. aren’t enough we can lament the conditions of blacks elsewhere.

Certainly there have been black actors in other kinds of roles but maybe someone with a more comprehensive awareness of film can point out the long list of feature films starring black actors that have gotten big attention ala “The Color Purple”, “Hotel Rwanda” etc. that don’t fit the mold I’ve mentioned. I.e. – parts that could have just as easily been played by white actors without changing any element of the story.

Mo’nique is getting accolades for her great acting. .shrug Looking at video of her schtick, playing an abusive ghetto mother seems about an inch away from her “comedy” persona. I wonder how she would do in a part that had nothing to do with “being black” – if she had to lose the ghetto syntax etc.? I’m guessing about as well as Martin Lawrence would do at Shakespeare or how successful Kat Williams or Dave Chappelle would have been if they actually had to come up with non-racial material that was clever and original.

If this movie is racist it would seem to fit into endless other examples of blacks in media. How about the minstrelsy of rap? Why do few seem to find it racist that there’s something called “Black Entertainment Television”? When’s the last time you saw a black comic other than Bill Cosby who didn’t rely on the crutch of race-based material and typically narrow concepts at that? Speaking of Mo’nique – without “muthafukka”, “Fuck” & variations thereof, “shit” and “niggah” she essentially has no act. She literally says and I quote “I told myself I’m ‘a keep it real…gonna keep it inna neighborhood wid all ‘dother black muthafukkas..” then talking about moving into a “white” gated community about how “I rep-a-zent ‘f my black peepah…I play my rap music ‘n shit three ‘foh clock in ‘a mo’nin…[loudly to the consternation of neighbors]”

I.e. playing right into the whole rappified notion of there being a set of attitudes & behaviors that “define” being black. Ebonicated speech, uneducated, vulgar, obnoxious, reactive and I’m a ‘bust a cap in ‘yo ass if you doesn’t likes it – where’s my damn fried ‘poke rinds. A Klansman standing up on stage in a hood and robe talking about lazy, shiftless niggers wouldn’t be any more racist than this.

Fri, Mar 12, 2010 3:05pm

MARYANN–“The “hysterical” comment I mentioned above really rankles, because that’s traditionally been a word used to dismiss women’s experiences.”
“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.”

As far as critical genius and film understanding there are no better critics than the Flickfilosopher (FF). I’ve been reading most of what the FF has written since she started the site. But reverse sexism has recently become persistent in the reviews.

Embracing any “ism”, (e.g. – racism, sexism, feminism, capitalism, liberalism) is just a fruitless way separating humanity into ‘us” and them’. If you look at your world through red-colored glasses, it’s going to appear in shades of red.

Most of us do this to some extent, but to embrace the practice is something different. The recent FF critical work has been regularly tinged with ‘red’. If you care to know what I mean by the past brilliance of the FF on this issue look at her review of “Bringing Down The House”.

Fri, Mar 12, 2010 4:59pm

So even if our culture — and our entertainment — is rife with sexism, I shouldn’t mention it, lest I should, um, hysterical?

I should just ignore the sexism? I should just lay back and think of Hollywood?