film review by Daphne Muse
Precious—Witnessing the Rebirth of a Tormented Soul
I can’t recall the last time I saw a film where every single word of dialogue belonged and really mattered, every actor was essential to the telling of the story and the story was so absolutely riveting and driven by the “special effects” of life. Born to a mother who clearly was a tortured yet “entitled” being, Precious (an uncanny portrayal by first time actress Gabourey Sidibe) charts a very different course for her life. Pregnant for the second time with her father’s child, Precious is a 350 pound teenager living in the grit and wit of late 80s Harlem. The father, who remains the mother’s boyfriend, is cast without physical clarity although his sexual brutality and their results are graphically portrayed. Her first child, born with Down’s syndrome and referred to as “Mongrel “ is tended to by a grandmother too frightened to challenge her daughter and is trotted out only when the social worker comes to check on Precious’ mother and her job search status.
The theme of this story is not bound by class, race, ethnicity or gender, nor does it define who we are as a people. However, it does reflect an entrenched behavior/practice that’s become a rite of passage in far too many cultures. Based on Sapphire’s award-winning 1996 novel Push, the film “Precious” brings the lens of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, as well as the impact of poverty and self-serving ignorance into clear focus, specifically as it all too often plays out in the dynamics of black life and culture.
Although brutally victimized, Precious refuses to become a victim and navigates her way beyond victimhood with the support of a unrelenting teacher at an alternative school (Paula Patton); a tough as Kryptonite social worker (Mariah Carey); a witty and compassionate male nurse (Lenny Kravitz); and an ensemble of fellow students in her GED class who are absolutely hilarious and poignant in their own right. It was fabulous to see Carey intelligently play against type and beyond her booty call, seductress image. Like countless other teachers throughout the country, from classes I taught in Mississippi to Mills College, “Precious” has been a student. The directing and cinematography were setup in such a way that I felt as though I was a “roach” on the wall; walked next to Precious as she went looking for the alternative school; watched from the bus as a group of boys taunted her sexually then pushed the girth of her body into full frontal contact with the sidewalk in a facial smack down. There is nothing even remotely stereotypical about this film and I invite anybody who wants to challenge me on that to do so. In the entitled eyes of the mother, from literally cooking her meals to feeding her mother’s smoking and numbers habits, Precious is there to serve her every need and blatantly used to access public assistance so that her mother can spend her days “luxuriating” in her own fantasies driven by 80s TV shows and hitting the number.
The interweaving of Precious’ dreams and fantasies into the story, including one where her white math teacher decides to divorce his wife and marry her, reflects so realistically on the misconstrued mindset of many a teenage girl. One of the most gut-wrenching moments of the film comes when Precious looks into the mirror, while fixing her hair, and reflecting back is the image of a white girl primping her long flowing hair. Seeing that image played out that way was so jarring and disconcerting that I held my face in my hands.
While there were moments in the film I sobbed and others when I wanted to snatch harrowingly raw Mary Jones (Mo’nique) off the screen, everything about it was so absolutely compelling. There was no redemption for Ms. Jones and there wasn’t even a setup for that expectation. But Precious also has this uncanny capacity to question mandates of the welfare system and eventually her mother. With the resolve, tenacity and wisdom far beyond her chronological years, Precious “handles it” and in one of the most riveting and emotionally daunting scenes in the film, she uses none of the profanity laced tirades that her mother constantly inflicts upon her at every turn and beat down to stand tall in her power and honor her truth. In giving birth to her second child, there is an incredible blossoming and rebirth for Precious. At the same time, her life is further compounded by yet another life-threatening challenge.
Witnessing the compassion and tenderness with which she carries her children and the rebirth of Precious’s soul simply was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in my life. The directorial hand on this film was brilliant and Lee Daniels clearly understood the depth and breadth of the material with which he was working. While I would be thrilled to see this film recognized by the Academy at the Oscars, especially the performances by Sidibe and Mo’Nique, I would most like to see is this film viewed by social workers, public policy analysts, teachers, mental health workers, and abused and fat girls across America. Gird yourself for a truly raw and gut wrenching experience and go see it now. Then treat yourself to some affirming moment in life that cuts the taste of bitterness and brutality out of your mouth and off your spirit. In the end, Precious did!
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet. She’s just completed her fifth book, a conversation with Nikki Giovanni reflecting on leadership, pedagogy and practice in a 21st Century Historically Black College.