Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Posted on March 12, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Claireece (newcomer Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe) is a 16-year-old, still in middle school, illiterate, pregnant with her second child. The first baby has Down Syndrome. Both pregnancies are the result of rape by her own father. She is subjected to constant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and has retreated so far inside herself that she barely exists in the world. And in a cruel parody of tenderness, she is called by her middle name, “Precious.” In a cruel demonstration of the constrictions of her world, Precious knew no other name to give her Down Syndrome child than “Mongo.”

Inside 350 pounds of weight, a moat of flesh, her wall against the world, Precious hides as far from everyone as she can go. She has little wisps of dreams cobbled together from television, a light-skinned boyfriend, a stroll down a red carpet, surrounded by cameras and adoring fans. But she is so limited in experience and opportunity that she literally cannot imagine a genuine alternative to what she has. She does not even know what the word “alternative” means. When the middle school principal arranges for her to attend a special “each one teach one” alternative school, someone has to explain to her what an alternative is. It is, a distracted administrator tells her, “a different way of doing.” And it is that recognition, more than the program itself, just the realization that there are different ways of doing, that leads her to understand that there may be choices available to her.

Seeing Precious understand for the first time that she is worthy of love and capable of learning is the expected pleasure of this movie. But it is also the challenge of the film. Even slightly toned down from the novel, by poet and teacher Sapphire, the abuse is so relentless, so outrageous, even beyond the usual struggles we see in fiction and on the talk shows and tabloid covers.

They thrive on exploitative confessions, a secularized testimony that tries to disinfect the prurient pleasures of wallowing in degradation and tragedy with the superficial pieties of simplistic redemption. The post-production sign-on of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry as producers, both survivors of abuse and highly successful purveyors of abuse melodrama, is a sign to be wary. And even with a sensitive performance by Sidibe, this film would risk falling into that trap of easy sentimentality. That it does not is due to one character and one actress, comedienne Mo’Nique in her Oscar-winning, fearless portrayal of the mother, a monster named, with grim irony, Mary.

Two key scenes in the film focus on Mary’s interactions with social workers. In the first, like a theatrical director, she barks out orders to set the stage for a visit, casting herself in the role of a loving grandmother, to persuade the social worker that she is doing everything necessary to qualify for welfare payments for her extended family. Where moments before she seemed completely out of control, wavering back and forth between stupor and rage, when she has to pull it together, she does, slapping on a wig and cuddling the baby. The instant the door shuts, the monster returns.

And then, near the end, in another meeting with another social worker (beautifully underplayed by pop diva Mariah Carey), Mary starts to talk and for the first time we see her as the victim as well as the inflicter of damage. In a monologue she seems to forget where she is and who she wants to appear to be and opens herself up in a moment so raw, so naked, so vulnerable that it takes the entire film to a different level.

Director Lee Daniels, like his producers Winfrey and Perry, brings a sincerity to telling these stories that tempers the potential for exploitation. He has a sure, if unconventional, eye for casting. In addition to Mo’Nique and Carey, he gets small jewels of performances from talk-show and sit-com star Sherry Shepherd as the alternative school administrator and musician Lenny Kravitz as a sympathetic nurse. The lovely Paula Patton brings understated grace to the role of the alternative teacher, and the assortment of young performers who play the classmates at Each One Teach One manage to avoid the “Welcome Back Kotter” syndrome and evoke full characters. But Mo’Nique’s fierce and fearless performance as Mary holds the story together and takes it to another level. She does not let us hate her because she does not let us compartmentalize her. By opening herself up on screen, she forces us to look into the source of her damaged heart. And that moment, more than any other, shows us what Precious has had to overcome.

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues
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Thoughts on ‘Precious’

Posted on November 19, 2009 at 3:59 pm

“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” has been warmly embraced by audiences and critics since it first appeared in festivals. Two of the biggest media powerhouses in the world, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, signed on as producers after the film was completed to help ensure its distribution and box office. Ninety percent of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes have given the film a positive review. I gave it an A- .

But I find some of the criticism and commentary on the film very thoughtful and the issues raised well worth discussion. In my own review, I raised the question of what is sometimes referred to as “poverty porn.” It can be hard to draw a line between what is exploitative and what is sensitive and illuminating. The movie is based on the best-seller Push (re-named Precious to tie in with the movie), by the poet Sapphire, inspired by the girls she worked with as a teacher.

PreciousMovieStill1.jpg

One of my favorite critics, Dana Stevens of Slate, made some of the strongest objections to the movie. She says the director’s “methodical commitment to abjection, his need to shove the reality of Precious’ life in our faces and wave it around till we acknowledge its awfulness, winds up robbing the audience (and, to some extent, the actors) of all agency….But in offering up their heroine’s misery for the audience’s delectation, created something uncomfortably close to poverty porn.”

Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy strongly objected to the film. “In ‘Precious,’ Oprah and Perry have helped serve up a film of prurient interest that has about as much redeeming social value as a porn flick.”

Milloy is critical of the plaudits from mostly-white audiences and of Winfrey and Tyler who rhapsodize about the small achievements of the downtrodden heroine instead of telling their own stories of unparalleled fame and fortune.

Maybe there is something to the notion that when human pathology is given a black face, white people don’t have to feel so bad about their own. At least somebody’s happy.

Sexual abuse is certainly an equal-opportunity crime, with black and white women similarly affected. But only exaggerated black depravity seems to resonate so forcefully in the imagination.

White suburban boys are so fascinated by it that they fueled an explosion of gangsta rap — misogynistic lyrics against a backdrop of booty-shaking black women.

I think this is an over-reaction, and in parts just wrong. Stories are a way of helping us make sense of the world by imposing a sense of certainty, logic, and meaning that often eludes us in life. Therefore, they are often melodramatic, exaggerated, and unrealistic. They often focus on suffering and on exaggerated depravity and very often rich white people are doing the suffering or bearing up under the depravity. Look at soap operas. Or any given episode of “Law and Order.” And white suburban boys can bear only a portion of the blame for gangsta rap. The rest goes to the perpetrators. There is an unforgettable moment in the Jay-Z documentary “Fade to Black” when two aspiring rap stars admit they feel queasy about writing songs that glorify violence and misogyny but do it to make money.

Frequent provocateur Armond White is one of the film’s harshest critics. He objects to the way that after it was completed Winfrey and Perry signed on as “producers” because it fit with their own narratives of triumph over abuse and poverty. “Promoting this movie isn’t just a way for Perry and Winfrey to aggrandize themselves, it helps convert their private agendas into heavily hyped social preoccupation.” He calls director Lee Daniels a “pathology pimp” and says that the movie is “an orgy of prurience.” He criticizes the film for “cast light-skinned actors as kind (schoolteacher Paula Patton, social worker Mariah Carey, nurse Lenny Kravitz and an actual Down syndrome child as Precious’ first-born) and dark-skinned actors as terrors” and says that the daydreams Precious has about being adored on a black carpet “sells materialist fantasy as a universal motivation.”

He concludes his 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.

White’s point about the skin color of the movie’s characters is echoed in an essay by Jada F. Smith on The Root. Also on The Root, Deborah Douglas criticizes the film for its portrayal of incest, contrary to what statistics show about the far greater likelihood of abuse by a step-father or brother than by a biological father. And Salamishah Tillet compares the response to this film to the more critical reaction to another movie about an abused teenager impregnated through incest, “The Color Purple.”

I suspect the greater outcry about “The Color Purple” was in part because while it was based on a book by a black woman, the movie was made by a white man. But “Precious” director Lee Daniels is black. There is always more leeway for anyone telling a story about his or her own ethnic and cultural group.

I think that Stevens makes some good points and the issue of the characters’ skin color seems a valid one, though Mo’Nique’s skin is much lighter than Gabourey Sidibe’s. While I like the way he writes and admire the intensity of his engagement, I do not agree with White’s comments about “materialist fantasy.” A key theme of the movie (as in many movies) was the heroine’s realization that the limited fantasy life she had based on television did not offer the satisfaction of real achievement and real relationships.

I really like the commentary from another of my favorite critics, Teresa Wiltz, also on The Root. She gets it exactly right when she reminds us to focus on the characters in the story rather than trying to make them stand for some major cultural conclusions.

deserves every bit of attention that it gets. But there’s something discomfiting about her declarations that “We are all Precious.” In short, she Oprah-fies Precious, rendering Precious’ fierce individuality the stuff of platitudes and Stuart moments on SNL.

No, we are not all Precious. We all get our power from the individuality of our stories. Precious stands alone.

Wiltz and Smith are featured in an NPR interview about “Precious” as well.

If you see the movie or if you or someone you care about is dealing with issues of abuse, please visit Beliefnet’s prayer wall inspired by the story. And if that abuse is in the present, please take inspiration from the story of Precious and get help now.

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Commentary Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Push

Posted on February 5, 2009 at 6:00 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, brief strong language, smoking and a scene of teen drinking
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 6, 2009

If you add up all the recent movies about ordinary-looking people who walk among us with special hidden powers, you might conclude that there are no normal people left. The accountant next door might be a secret mutant, time traveler, mythological character or cyborg, but he is rarely just an accountant.

“Push” is the latest in this genre, and director Paul McGuigan has learned from and built upon many of the films that have gone before. “Push” offers a whole bestiary of people born with special talents, including Movers, Shifters, Pushers, Sniffers, Bleeders and Watchers. Some of their talents are familiar– Watchers, for example, seem to be your standard clairvoyants. But others, such as Bleeders, are a little further off the beaten track: they scream at an ear shattering, brain-pulping pitch.

The mutants in Push are pursued by a nefarious government agency called “The Division” which wants to harness their powers and exploit them for military purposes. Those who are fortunate enough to avoid being locked up in a prison hospital and subjected to horrendous medical experiments go underground in remote locations in an effort to escape detection by the authorities. The movie opens as Nick Gant, a young boy with the telekinetic powers of a “Mover,” watches his father being murdered by agents of the Division. Gant’s father’s last desperate words to his son are a prediction that some day a girl in need of help will come to him with a flower. Years later, our hero has grown into a young man (Chris Evans) who is hiding out in Hong Kong to stay one step ahead of the agents who killed his father. Lo and behold, he is approached by a young girl with a flower, Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) who is another type of mutant– a “Watcher” who draws pictures of the future, and the two are off and running on an adventure to find the secret suitcase and bring down the evil “Division.”

This movie is a fast moving, erratic combination of clever and cliche, of imaginative visuals and unbearably corny dialogue. There are innovative moments, such as a shoot-out in a restaurant between telekinetically manipulated guns hovering in the air, or a chase through a Hong Kong shop filled with huge fish tanks where the screams of “Bleeders” cause the fish in the tanks to burst into red blossoms. On the other hand, sometimes the lines of dialogue are so awful that the screaming of the Bleeders seems like a welcome relief.

One of the best parts is the backdrop of Hong Kong — old shops and winding streets with ancient musicians playing traditional instruments and house boats on the dock — which proves more interesting than some imaginary alien planet. It may be better than the average mutant-next-door movie, even if it doesn’t have any hidden special powers.

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