When a precious life means little

December 17, 2009

Helen Redmond explains how the new film Precious pushes its viewers to take a hard look at poverty and the social safety net.

"Some people tell a story and it don't make no sense or be true. But I'm gonna try to make sense and tell the truth, else what's the fucking use? Ain' enough lies and shit out there already?
-- Precious Jones

THE FILM Precious, based on the book Push by Sapphire, pushes buttons viewers didn't know they had. It pushes the boundaries of some of the most racially charged stereotypes in the U.S.: the so-called lazy, Black welfare queen lying around collecting a check; the Black man portrayed as unrepentant, sexual predator; and obese Black people eating fried chicken. Add to this rape, incest, HIV/AIDS, mental illness, illiteracy, teen pregnancy and poverty.

Both critical acclaim and harsh criticism have rained down on the film from all sides. The skin color of the actors is also an issue for critics of the movie. Clareece "Precious" Jones, portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe, is dark-skinned, while the supporting cast members are light-skinned. In addition, when Precious retreats into a fantasy world to escape a horrific life, her boyfriend is light-skinned.

A scene from the movie Precious
A scene from the movie Precious

Since slavery, skin color has been used to divide Blacks into a caste system. Those with darker skin confront more racism and less opportunity. The director of the film, Lee Daniels, acknowledged this in an interview in the New York Times Magazine. "What I learned from doing the film is even though I am Black, I'm prejudiced," he said. "I'm prejudiced against people who are darker than me. When I was young, I went to a church where the lighter-skinned you were, the closer you sat to the altar."

PRECIOUS IS set in Harlem in the late 1980s, when the attack on working-class living standards and the welfare state is in full swing. Crack cocaine is ravaging neighborhoods, and President Ronald Reagan and wife "Just Say No" Nancy launch the war on drugs. HIV/AIDS is spreading among intravenous drug users and sex workers, which the president completely ignores. This is the world Precious grows up in.

The core of the film is about two equally powerful relationships--one between Precious and her mother Mary, played by the comedian Mo'Nique, and the other between Precious and her teacher Blue Rain, played by Paula Patton.

Review: Movies

Precious, directed by Lee Daniels, based on the novel Push: A Novel by Sapphire, starring Gabourey Sidibe, Paula Patton, Mo'Nique and Mariah Carey.

The scenes with Precious and her mother are shocking, violent and jaw-droppingly depraved. A mother-daughter relationship like theirs isn't supposed to exist. Mo'Nique has saturated her character with enough simmering, insane rage and bitterness that it's only a matter of minutes until she explodes. And when she does, the physical and emotional ferocity and sheer hatred she unleashes on Precious is almost too much to watch.

It's crucial to understand Mary is dangerously mentally ill--her inability to mother is because of that. She has watched her ex-partner commit unspeakable sexual crimes against her daughter and impregnate her twice. But incredibly, Mary blames Precious for the sexual abuse and for "taking" her man.

The dynamics of incest and how they play out in families is enormously complex and almost always leads to the dissolution of the family. Precious' father does indeed leave, and that pushes Mary over the edge into depression, despair and deeper poverty.

The film would have been stronger, though, if it had more fully developed Mary's character. We only see the sadistic and screaming side of her. Surely Mary is capable of expressing a range of emotions toward her daughter, despite her untreated mental illness.

Sidibe inhabits the character of Precious with as much power and pathos as Mo'Nique does Mary. Weighing in at over 300 pounds, she smacks kids at school who taunt her, and then goes home to a private hell and gets smacked and sexually abused by her mother.

Precious is a trauma survivor and disassociates when she has flashbacks of being raped by her father. In these dream-like dissociative episodes in the film, she is famous, beautiful, happy, loved and adored by a handsome boyfriend and legions of fans--everything the real world has denied her.

Her life changes when she gets kicked out of high school for being pregnant and is sent to an alternative school. Despite being illiterate and told she is dumb, Precious is smart and motivated to learn. In her new school, with a class size of less than six and an empathetic teacher named Blue Rain who has the time to devote and develop her talents, Precious begins to thrive.

Precious soon realizes that, if she can't read or write, her life will never improve, nor will her children's lives. She attacks the alphabet with gusto and dramatically increases her reading and writing skills. This in turn opens up a whole new world, one that includes reading about the lives of proud and prominent African Americans like Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King.

Blue Rain, an out lesbian, becomes a surrogate mother to Precious and provides vital emotional support and constant encouragement. But it is through daily writing in her journal and poetry that Precious begins to reshape her life and heal.

The other students in class are a multicultural group of young women from the same hard-knock life, and for the first time, Precious makes friends.

THIS IS also a film about the American welfare state, which punishes the poor and does precious little to lift families out of poverty. The money Precious and her mother receive each month is paltry and keeps them trapped in a degrading cycle of poverty.

Mariah Carey plays a caseworker at the local welfare office. She is not a social worker or a therapist as her role in the movie assumes (full disclosure: I'm a social worker and a therapist). The pop singer is horribly miscast in the role and has exactly one expression: deer caught in the headlights. Okay, make it two: totally perplexed poker face.

The scenes in her crowded, very public cubicle where she tries to force Precious to talk about being sexually abused are completely dishonest. Caseworkers in welfare offices don't do therapy with aid recipients and threaten to cut off their check if they won't talk. Carey's character becomes yet another adult who bullies and traumatizes Precious.

There is no Hallmark happy ending--always a danger when Oprah Winfrey enthusiastically endorses a film. It's clear that Precious, newly diagnosed with HIV, the mother of two small children (one with Down Syndrome) and living in a halfway house on welfare, will continue struggling to survive.

There is no fake redemption or rescue. No tearful moment when all is confessed and forgiven and hugs all around. There is only a glimmer of hope and a fragile network of friends and social services for Precious to rely on. Her future is yet to be written.

Precious is a complicated and important film that takes on controversial and taboo subjects most Hollywood films prefer to ignore. It excavates the human costs of a society that denies a decent education, mental health care, income support, healthy food and safety to the most vulnerable among us.

It contains two of the most compelling and volatile Black female performances to hit the screen in a long time. The film deserves all the awards it has won so far. The book, written more than 10 years ago and still timely, deserves to be read, too.

See Precious and be prepared to be pushed, real hard.

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