*Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (R)
Carmike 10, Cinemark 16, Kimball's Peak Three, Hollywood Interquest
When Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, screened for audiences early this year at the Sundance Film Festival, it met with almost universal praise, scooping up both a Grand Jury prize and an Audience Award. But as the movie has expanded to other venues, so have some viewers' concerns about the film's depiction of its African-American subject and her circumstances.
Last month Armond White, film critic at the New York Press, cracked open the debate with a review calling the film an "exhibition of ghetto tragedy and female disempowerment," a "strange combination of liberal guilt and condescension" full of "brazenly racist clichés," such as a scene that finds the title character stealing a bucket of chicken. He also criticized Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry for their endorsements of the film. And, in the review's most surprising moment, pointed to Norbit and Meet Dave, among others, as examples of better black-themed films.
Now with the movie reaching local theaters and the fight still raging, we've asked two of our regular critics with vastly differing approaches — one sarcastic, one sincere — to offer their opinions.
Better you than me
The film Precious illuminates the life of an abused, obese, illiterate, pregnant Harlem high schooler looking to escape her unequivocally miserable circumstances. And despite all the film's controversy, hell if I know how race exploitation may or may not figure into it, or what it means for the future of black indie film. I just know a good movie when I have one marketed to me! Even the poster — with its broken silhouette forming the shape of a hand at a woman's crotch — is impressive, albeit in a highly discomfiting, innocence-shattering way.
On that score, the movie's even, um, better?
Affecting a poetry of piled-on pain, screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher and director Lee Daniels do come awfully close to something like victimization porn, but it's not for nothing that they've racked up festival accolades, celebrity support and Oscar buzz. Right?
Now, you may think I just can't understand because I'm some random white male film critic, or that I'm overpraising this film for reasons of political correctness. You may think lead actress Gabourey Sidibe is having a Susan Boyle moment of misdirected public pity, and I'm encouraging it.
Well, let me tell you: No, sir (or ma'am). I totally relate to Precious. Really, I do.
You see, I once lived in a miserable apartment full of cats and daytime TV and burnt-butter-colored light myself. True, I wasn't being beaten by my raging, welfare-addicted mother (Mo'Nique) or repeatedly raped by my deadbeat father while Mom smoked a cigarette nearby. But I do remember several slow fades to black during that period, usually when I was falling asleep in my entirely safe and secure but lonely bed.
Also, my Connecticut prep school was only 150 miles from Harlem. That's just a two-hour drive! At school, I may or may not have had a delicately beautiful, light-skinned black woman for a teacher (played by Paula Patton), whose mouth I watched very closely when she said, simply, "Try." I did keep a journal, though, and every day I told myself, "Somethin' gonna happen," just like Precious does, while gentle opalescent light poured through the windows as if God's angels were right outside. Also like Precious, I did barf in an alley once.
So OK, maybe I never considered myself "just ugly black grease to be wiped away." But I know that the world can be very threatening, and that Lenny Kravitz can be very nonthreatening. I appreciate that Precious' makers know this, too. And thanks to their movie, I now also know it's so much better to be a film critic like me than to be Claireece Precious Jones.
It's fascinating to see how some critics and commentators are reacting to Precious. It's racist, they say, exploitive and emblematic of liberal guilt. It's pornographic, even.
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, 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 — if we're not up-front about it? Nothing that we see in Precious 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 others have for them.
It's hard not to heed 1987 Harlem resident Precious, because she's so genuine, in her pain and in the strength that she doesn't even realize she has. That Claireece Jones is called by her middle name, Precious, is a cruel joke, since no one appears to care for her until she encounters a kind teacher at her alternative school.
This isn't movie-of-the-week stuff, with a plucky heroine and happy ending. Nothing about this is sugar-coated. That would be the stuff of liberal guilt, if it attempted to assuage us into thinking that these terrible things aren't so bad, because the human spirit can triumph. Precious has spirit, but if there's anything triumphant about her story, it's a very small, survival-minded sort of triumph.
None of the film's horrors, however, make Precious' experience less real. The culture she is steeped in may drive her, say, to imagine a pretty blonde girl instead of seeing her own reflection in a mirror, or to want a boyfriend who is "light-skinned," but are those not honest reactions to everything around her? A more supportive environment may have given her the resources needed to reject the culture's BS, but when the nicest thing her mother can call her is "dumb bitch," this is not that environment.
It disheartens, but doesn't surprise me, that so many fail to see even that aspect of this frank film. The full breadth of what constitutes authentic womanhood is so unseen on screen that when something like Precious comes along, it isn't even recognized for what it is.