Precious.

Since seeing Precious on Friday, I’ve been trying to recall another recent onscreen portrayal of evil anywhere as effective as the one offered up by Mo’Nique in the role of the title character’s mother. Javier Bardem’s unrelenting assassin in “No Country for Old Men” might qualify, but he was essentially a cartoon. Maybe Daniel Day-Lewis’s oil tycoon in “There Will Be Blood,” but even that sociopath seemed to have other drives (like towering greed) besides perpetuating human suffering. Not so Mo’Nique’s Mary, an absolute monster who is devoid of any redeeming qualities. She commits an atrocity in every scene she inhabits, and so the tiny, dim apartment she shares with Precious isn’t just suffocating, but terrifying. It’s the most powerful performance in a movie full of them.

But the movie’s uniformly excellent acting underscores the other problems with Lee Daniels’ direction. To be fair, it would be hard to pull off subtlety in a movie in which the morbidly obese, illiterate protagonist is routinely sexually and physically abused, impregnated by her father, and ignored by anyone else she comes across. But given all that, there’s certainly no need to pile on, which is what Daniels does, intersplicing bright, tonally dissonant fantasy sequences into the main character’s more traumatic moments. As her father rapes her, she transports into a  daydream in which she’s a beloved celebrity; when she’s attacked by some dudes on the street, she entertains thoughts of dancing flirtily with some guy on the set of a music video. We get it: she wants to be anywhere but where she is in those moments. But when we’re talking about a character for whom personal degradation is a daily occurrence, it seems like that sentiment wouldn’t need any additional highlighting. Like the scene where Precious is getting ready for school and sees a blonde white girl aping her movements in the mirror, these flourishes are way, way too on the nose.*

But what I found most implausible was Precious’s inevitable awakening and empowerment. (Inevitable because this is a Hollywood movie, after all.)   Now, obviously, we want Precious to find a place to belong and to feel safe, but the movie’s approach to granting this to her is unbelievably cheap and easy. Her teacher, Blu Rain (Paula Patton), happens to be superhumanly beautiful and munificent, and reaches Precious through the power of the written word (because no troubled teenager in a Hollywood movie can ever saved by math or science). I could buy that a neglected kid like Precious would be longing for human connection. What’s tougher to swallow is that this battered teenager would have sufficient cause to trust this lady or buy what she’s selling with so little resistance, and that she’d become so socially well-adjusted with her peers so quickly. Maybe Blu Rain is made of magic (which would at least explain the name). The scene in which Precious tearfully confesses to her classmates that she’s HIV-positive is, of course, expertly acted. But as my co-blogger quadmoniker pointed out when the film ended, it was also Nice White Lady more or less verbatim.*

(There are some other grating little period details. For some reason, Daniels decided to set the movie in 1987, even though nothing about the movie seems like 1987 save some wardrobe choices here and there. In a moment that is supposed to symbolize Precious’s budding awareness as she becomes more literate, we see a montage of important people and events about which she wants to expose her child, including Tianenmen Square, which wouldn’t happen for another two years. In another of those aforementioned fantasy montage things, the background music is Queen Latifah’s “Come Into My House,” which, again, wouldn’t come out until 1989. Then there’s the modern NYC subway car we see Precious on. Nitpicky, perhaps, but then there’s nothing about the story that required Daniels to set the movie in 1987, either. Maybe that chronological conceit was a way to explain all the crackheads in her neighborhood, or Precious’s affinity for light-skinned brothers, who haven’t really been in since the days of DeBarge and Al B. Sure.)

 

Many of my deeper qualms with the movie echo Stacia’s feelings about Push, the novel by Sapphire on which it’s based. “What possible reason would Hollywood have for further dramatizing an existence as heinous as Precious’s?” Does the film shed light on some hard truths about urban poverty or sexual abuse? Or is Precious a parade of exploitation masquerading as topicality? Good luck trying to satisfactorily answer any of those questions.

*My co-blogger Isabelle, who was one of the people with whom I saw the movie, said that this Daniels outing was relatively restrained compared to other movies he’s helmed, like Shadowboxer.

**Latoya makes the same point here.

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Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs about race and ethnicity for National Public Radio. He is a native of South Philly and reads and writes and runs and rants. You can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to him on Facebook.

17 comments to Precious.

  • quadmoniker

    The movie was a lot better than I expected it to be, and I remember leaving the theater pleasantly surprised. That said, I’m still not sure what the point is of such unrelenting sadness, and I would appreciate it better if her transformation had been more meaningful. I just don’t think she would h ave suddenly had so much spunk. No one had ever loved her, so I don’t buy that she has any time of normal relationship with her teacher, social worker or classmates.

    Paula Patton’s character annoyed me the most, though. She was by far the most attractive person in the film (Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz are hot, but weren’t allowed to be as hot as they really are.) Her hair was too nice, her clothes were too nice, and her behavior was too upbeat. I just don’t buy that a teacher at an alternative school in Harlem has the wherewithal for all that. Maybe she would spring into action when she sees how desperate Precious’s situation is, but would her hair always be so styled? Wouldn’t she wear jeans sometime?

  • In Latoya’s review on Racialicious, she says that the Blu Rain character in the book was dark-skinned with dreadlocks, which makes Patton’s portrayal not just unrealistic, but problematic.

  • You hit the poorly driven nail on the poorly crafted head. There are plenty of lovely performances in this movie (really loved the scenes with girls in class and the hospital), but those moments are crowded out by Daniels predictable, mediocre direction of Sapphire’s predictable and vastly overrated source material.

    >what I found most implausible was Precious’s inevitable awakening and empowerment.<

    I have a less than admirable tendency to read everything as science fiction, but besides reminding me of every Nice White Lady flick in existence, the speedy, montage powered arc of Precious' education (surrounded by screens; nice catch on Tianemen Sq!) also suggests the magical education by data dump scenes in flicks like the Matrix or Dark City – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKqhfMLnnqg – It's all claptrap, but at least the sci-fi claptrap isn't presented as empowerment and self-help. When Precious asks Teach "Do you watch Oprah?" all I heard "Have you read the Secret? As Above, So Below, right?"

    All that said, my favorite part of your review was your restraint (take a note, Lee). I don't know what claim about Precious is more overblown: That it's the worst movie since Birth of Nation, that Mo'Nique deserves an Oscar (her turn as Mary strikes me as a sustained version of her early stand-up, which was all about being a fat, desperate woman who turns out to be faster on her feet than she looks when Daddy or boyfriend start throwing punches), or that Mariah was "unrecognizable!" (Oh please. I think the best word to describe Mariah was "there." She made me feel like she was there.)

    In sum: Better than District 9, not as good as Rashaad Ernesto Green's short film Premature, which stalks the same blocks to better effect in a quarter the time and 99% less pretense.

  • quadmoniker

    Yeah, the movie’s only unambiguously nice character is light-skinned, thin and beautiful? Problematic at best.

  • prt

    I haven’t had a chance to see the movie, so I’ll to reserve judgement for now. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I believe it’s set in 1980s Harlem, so perhaps that explains Daniels choice of time frame?

  • of course, but if you’re going to set the *film* in 1980s Harlem, then set it in 1980s Harlem. Daniels foregoes most attempts at evoking that time period, so why set it there at all?

  • belleisa

    “What possible reason would Hollywood have for further dramatizing an existence as heinous as Precious’s?” –We all like the hero/hope model.

    “Does the film shed light on some hard truths about urban poverty or sexual abuse?” –Not at all in a recognizable way

    God.

    It’s what I said after seeing the film. It’s what I said when we learn that just as Precious is beginning to achieve some agency, however “implausible,” she’s HIV positive. It’s when the tears I was holding back despite my best efforts, finally fought through.

    Precious’s transformation is necessary. It’s the necessity of Hollywood to make us believe the unbelievable. The theme of overcoming odds, expressed daily in the stories of people with disabilities, people rising from poverty, people coming undone and breaking free from their demons. It’s the stuff that our modern “hero” narratives are made from.

    We all want to know, perhaps need to know that people can emerge from extraordinarily difficult circumstances, better, faster, richer and smarter. It makes us feel good. It’s a motivation for altruism. But sometimes, as was my fear watching this film, stories like this one are motivators for believing that every Precious can be transformed in this same way. And for the people who can’t, well they just didn’t try hard enough right?

    “But there is hope in this film. It’s in the “system story,” writes Mark Blankenship of the HuffPo. As problematic as team light-skinned (Patton, Carey and Cravitz) is to save Precious, this movie is a sort of paean to social services. Is it a reach? Yes. Are there severe structural messages and questions left out of the equation? Absolutely.

    On Mary being a sociopath, not so sure. Is it because there are higher expectations of “motherhood,” in our culture?

  • keke

    I have not seen the movie yet, but I have read the book. Does Precious really make huge leaps and bounds towards success in the film? I know that given where she started, her transformation and her achievements in the book were pretty good. But she still had a long way to go and the book was not exactly a happy ending; at least not to me. I don’t want you to spoil the ending for those who may want to see the film but and have not read the book but, did they deviate that much from the book and make it a triumphant ending?

    One thing I did want from the book was a little insight into what made Mary so crazy, and the book does not address that since it is told in 1st person narrative. I hear that the movie offers a glimpse into her past but still manages not to excuse her behavior. So that should be interesting.

    Having said all that, I think it is safe to say that Precious’ mother, Mary, has some serious mental problems and is unstable–and a sociopath. There is no way that you could do the things that she did to her child and not be nuts. No matter what happened to her as a child, she is still crazy. Not implying that you condone Mary’s behavior. That is just my opinion from reading the book. The weird thing is that I still have not decided if I actually like the book or not. But I do think that I am going to see the movie. I have heard rave reviews.

  • anon

    team light skinned *dead*

  • I couldn’t watch The Wire, and I doubt I’ll see Precious. These slices of life put up on the screen are what I see every day when I back out of my driveway. It’s too painful to sse it in real life and then sit down in a dark theater and try and enjoy it as entertainment. I see legions of Black and Brown children who are doomed to failure by poverty, neglectful parents, and failing school systems. There is no Hollywood ending in real life – the sh*t cycle keeps repeating itself generation after generation. Everything doesn’t have to be uplifting and redeeming on the silver screen – but I’ll leave Precious alone… hits too close to home for me.

  • I think it’s a bad move to compare The Wire to Precious. The Wire is a blistering critique of the way cities are run, the way crime is enforced, and of urban policy in general. I think you’re selling it way short.

  • Beth

    I still haven’t seen the movie, but will probably get around to it eventually (perhaps via Netflix).

    This may be a dumb question, but do you think the “montage of important people and events about which she wants to expose her child,” is intentionally set in the future because she’s anticipating the future life she will have? Obviously, Precious can’t predict Tianenmen Square, but perhaps showing *actual* future events was the film’s way of portraying her anticipation of *imagined important* future events, whatever they may be. (sorry about the awkward phrasing)

    Or, maybe I’m just giving the film too much credit.

  • Beth

    Yeah–I really, really wish they could have found an actress who resembles Blu Rain in the novel; her appearance, in relation to Precious’ sense of herself and racialized notions of beauty, is not incidental.

    It has been a few years since I read _Push_, but I can’t help but think of the way it seems to be in dialogue with _The Bluest Eye_, which broaches the issue of “colorism” and racialized notions of beauty and incest, and _The Color Purple_, which has (initially perceived) incest as well as a character who finds her own voice through writing.

  • On Mary being a sociopath, not so sure. Is it because there are higher expectations of “motherhood,” in our culture?

    I mean, I’m with you on the motherhood thing. But if she’s not a sociopath, how do you explain the thrown newborn, and the TV set thrown down a staircase at the head of the person holding said newborn?

  • I agree with you about The Wire, it was a great show that sliced and diced the urban experience. I just see the corrupt politicians, crooked cops, and gangsterism daily in the beautiful city of Compton. Good ‘ol Omar Bradley – the former mayor called himself the “gangster mayor.” School system taken over by the state for corruption. Police department disbanded and the agency that takes over finds piles of unsolved murder cased with active leads sitting on shelves. Don’t need The Wire when I can see it real life…

  • WARNING-SPOILER:

    Besides the fact that they altered Blu Rain’s appearance, I was also surprised that the sexual abuse my Precious’ mother was glossed over. The movie hinted at it when Mary was in bed and told Precious to “come take care of Mama”, but in the book, the sexual abuse was blatant. (I won’t go into any details, but it was graphic.)

    The movie was good in its own right, but compared to the book, it didn’t show the depth of Precious’ trauma. I would have liked the movie to be more raw and instead of cutting to fantasy sequences whenever Precious was abused, I wish they’d have showed it to help people understand how much she had to overcome.

  • Punky

    Finally saw the film – yay! Few problems, I did manage to get my hands on an electronic copy of the script, there were several scenes left out which would have tied together some small (maybe unimportant) things together which may have ended up looking like sloppy directing: i.e., Precious leaving her notebook in the chicken place, Precious and her classmate reading her stolen file at the halfway house, etc.). The dream sequences were a bit long and didn’t give us the intencity of what pain Precious was enduring. The sexual abuse committed by Mary should have also been more prominent as in the book, but that “take care of mama” comment was quite impacting. Blu Rain was too good to be true, not sure why such a beautiful woman was chosen to play her, maybe they could have uglied her up a little bit like they did Mariah?

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