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.


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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14 Replies to “Thoughts on ‘Precious’”

  1. I read the novel Push about a week ago and the skin color issue is a big point in the novel. Precious believes herself to be light-skinned on the inside, and she does mention a couple times that her mother is “dark” like she is, so I’m not sure why a light-skinned woman was cast as her mother. Precious views light-skinned blacks as inherently better than herself and her mother, the dark-skinned ones.
    I haven’t yet seen the movie so I don’t know which nurse Lenny Kravitz is playing, but in the novel, there was a Hispanic paramedic that helped Precious deliver her first child and was kind to her, and in the novel she forms a good opinion of Hispanics based on this encounter, as well.
    I don’t know why more wasn’t done to clarify how big an issue skin color is in the novel, but that’s my two cents about why the casting might have gone the way it had.

  2. Thank you so much, Tracy. This is very helpful. In one scene in the movie, Precious looks at herself in the mirror and sees/imagines herself as light-skinned and slender, with blonde hair. And in the movie she asks the social worker played by Mariah Carey what color she is and says she wants a light-skinned boyfriend, so we do get a sense of her thinking of her dark skin as making her less worthy.

  3. Interesting, Bianca, thanks. For me, it had a very traditional narrative structure as each scene took Precious closer to thinking of herself as lovable and capable. But I can see how the impressionistic form of story-telling could have seemed non-linear to you. Appreciate your sharing your perspective.


  5. Jazman, I so appreciate your sharing your thoughts on the film. For me, it was not a happy ending but a hopeful one, with Precious realizing that she was worthwhile, that she had ability, and that she could be the mother she never had. I hope you will write your own story and make it come out the way you think it should. Thanks so much for writing!

  6. First of all, God bless Gabby. Aside from her astonishing gifts as an actress, she’s a powerful role model for girls and young women who are struggling with body image oppression. Every time a chubby little girl sees Gabby and decides, “Hey — it’s okay to like myself the way I am!” an important victory will be won. May she prosper and succeed in all she does. She’s magnificent.
    Props to Mo’Nique, as well, for having the courage to play such an unsympathetic character with such fearless brio.
    Armond White claims that this film promotes racial stereotypes more egregiously than any movie since “Birth of a Nation.” That comment was mean-spirited and vastly overdrawn (although the chicken-stealing scene in the film was pretty cringe-inducing). This being said, though, the movie itself is very problematic on several levels. I agree with the commentators who’ve noted the “light-skinned”/”dark-skinned” issue. (Indeed, that’s too kind a description — most of the “good” characters in this film could easily pass for white.) But that problem doesn’t exist in a vacuum — the real issue, I think, is its context.
    This context is the film’s unrelievedly bleak portrayal of “ghetto” life. Everyday life in the ‘hood, according to this movie, is depraved and ugly beyond redemption. The combined effect of these images is insidious. Between the darkness of all those complexions and the bleakness of those scenes from Precious’s life and environment, the message is clear: for Precious to be rescued, she needs to be rescued from nothing less than “Blackness” itself.
    Then there’s the relentlessly individualistic, “self”-oriented vision of liberation that the movie portrays. Once upon a time, movies like “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Raisin In The Sun” –and even, in their own way, the Blaxploitation flicks of the ’60s and ’70s– portrayed poor people as basically good, even noble, folk, mired in circumstances that they could change by working together for social progress. The “bad guys,” by and large, were the oppressors.
    This film conveys a vastly different message: the enemy here is poor people themselves (not poverty, but poor PEOPLE — especially poor mothers). Far from suggesting that unity in struggle is the way to solve problems, this film shows Precious as needing to save herself, as an individual, by distancing herself as far from “those people” as possible.
    Although there are many uplifting and moving moments in the film, although I remain in awe of the acting (especially on the part of Sibide and Mo’Nique), and although I would still recommend “Precious” for discerning viewers, I find these messages to be extremely troubling.

  7. Thank you so much for these insightful comments, jazzmanchgo. I agree with you that the portrayal of light and dark-skinned characters is troubling. I will think about the idea that Precious needs to be rescued from “Blackness” and the focus on the individual that is one of America’s great strengths and weaknesses.
    My initial response is that there is no authenticity in poverty and dependence, and the movie showed us black characters who were poor but had found dignity and meaning in their lives. At the end of the film, Precious is still poor, but she has found the self-respect and sense of hope to take on some big challenges instead of fantasizing about far-away glamor. She was able to be kind to one of “those people,” the little girl who had looked to her for friendship. So, while I think your points have a lot of validity and are well worth discussing further, I think it is more complicated than saying that the enemy is poor people.
    I really appreciate your taking the time to write and I will continue to consider these points.

  8. i am a 40+ year old female who at the age of 10 was raped by my uncle i told my aunt who told me i was lying caught something from him and then had to go to the hospital which they treated me and sent me back to them this went on for 3 years i was raped by him and beat by her after many trips to the ER i tried to kill myself i got tired of folks tell me i was nothing and nobody cared i told everyone and know one did anything i read this book then i saw the preview for this movie and i must say that it brought back all the fear i had as a child but i am so happy that someone is tellin this story folks need to know that this is not something that only happens in your nightmares thank you for puttin out this movie oh and by the way i am now married and i have two children and 3 grands and at age 39 i joined the army and i am thankful that i made it threw i think this story tells you that we all have a reson to live and that altho we go thru bad things we can make someone elses life a lil better im sad this happen to anyone but im happy to know it wasnt just me that i was evil and thats why it was happing

  9. Blessings on you for sharing your story, Sam, and for the inspiring example of your triumph over abuse and betrayal by those around you. The best thing about a movie like “Precious” is the way it opens the door for all of us to hear the stories from our community and honor those who tell them. My best to you and your family.

  10. I have more of a question about the movie… I was wondering if the little girl (that at the end Precious gave her red scarf to) was part of Precious imagination? I ask that because The only scenes we see her in (save the last scene with her mother), only her and Precious are in. Precious gives the girl the symbolic red scarf, which we never see except in her dream sequences. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when Precious gets up after her name is called and looks in the mirror, the girl isn’t in the reflection. Someone asked that same question on a different site and it made me reconsider the role the child played in the movie. I have not read the book. I am curious as to other peoples opinion. Thanks!

  11. What a thoughtful comment. Many thanks. I think it is possible to interpret the little girl as a symbol of the way Precious thinks of herself or to think of her as a real character. A lovely idea.

  12. To start off totally off topic, I found this page by accident while doing a Google search for “Sam Ritter porn”. That was the stage name of the guy who played Evil Ed in the 80’s cheesy horror film, Fright Night, that he used when doing gay porno films after his Hollywood career went south. Heard this gossip recently and decided to see. Yet somehow I got here instead, so since I am here I might as well share some thoughts. First, this story is obviously based in reality sadly. I don’t think it represents a large portion of African American’s life experience, but it would never have gotten written or published without some realness. Second, I must wonder if anyone who worked on this film with primary actress felt like a douchebag afterwards. I mean on film sets with characters whose body types are important to the role, there is a concentrated effort to maintain that body. Did these people feel shitty passing her boxes of doughnuts and bags of burgers while telling her to let them drive her around in a gocart to avoid her burning too many calories? Not to mention the message being sent out to other crazy circus fat teens that being a wildabeast can land you a career making role, bringing you success. I sincerely hope the skinny bitches who starred in it with her like Mariah Carey vigorously campaigned to convince her to start a serious diet and exercise routine by the end of production. Just saying.

  13. Oh and to clarify my last statement, I really hope that no one takes my offensive sounding statements to mean that I find fat people to be unattractive, worthless or of less value in any way, shape or form. I am simply worried about health issues that plague people who suffer from morbid obeseity. It is dangerous to their health. Being overweight doesn’t make you worthless or less of a person, but it can mess up your life. It can cause you pain and suffering as well as early, untimely death. You should be proud of your accomplishments in life and you should be proud of being a good person who treats others with respect. You should not be proud of fat. It is a health flaw and should be treated as such.

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