Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire

Precious is this year's "Assuaging White Guilt" float in the Oscar parade, and what a doozy it is. Much like 2008's entry Slumdog Millionaire, this feature-length portrait of a hapless victim getting beaten, tortured, and then kicked-while-down somehow has audiences and critics alike crying 'life-affirming!'. In no way disguised as a 'feel-good film', however, Precious takes any bad taste you might have watching one of the less-fortunate walked all over and ratchets it up to eleven. But that's not even the worst of it.

The film follows a malnourished, overweight and undereducated black teenager. Stuck in 1987 Harlem, she must struggle against: illiteracy, mean classmates that prey on her social ineptitude, a mother that regularly throws appliances at her head, a rapist father that has impregnated her twice and, worst of all, monotonous, hackneyed dialogue. Her name, by the way, is Precious, which is convenient given that her's is a story of self-worth lost and regained.

The base problem with the film is the incompetence of the filmmakers. Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Geoffrey Fletcher (the latter with zero other entries on the IMDb and so insignificant, it seems, that he has yet to have someone set up a wikipedia page in his name), the film patches itself together like an Unsolved Mysteries dramatization. It's pretty funny that Daniels and Fletcher are so blatantly trying to smudge the authorship of the movie by awkwardly foisting the source material and its poet/novelist into the title and then handing over shilling duties to celebrity-investors Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, none of whom had anything to do with the production.

Is it possible that Daniels is trying to pay homage to his illiterate heroine by constructing a film rife with glaring continuity errors, characters that fall off the board or show up as part of the ensemble with no introduction, and lazy, iMovie editing and photography? A red scarf makes appearances throughout the film with about the same frequency and subtlety as the little girl in red from Schindler's List. I'm not sure what it symbolizes, though: Precious' tenacity? Her hopes and dreams? Given some third act references to the forthcoming AIDS epidemic, it's terrifying that Daniels has Precious at one point drape the scarf over the head of a small girl. (I propose that the scarf merely represents Daniels' own dream to one day conceive of and then execute something symbolic in a movie.)

The opening credits are spelled out the way Precious herself might have. His production outfit is listed as "LE DNLS TINMINT" or something like that, with "Lee Daniels Entertainment" underneath in parentheses. If that seems a little cutesy to you for a movie allegedly dealing in harsh realities, then wait until you see all the post-Scrubs fantasy sequences in which Precious imagines herself to be rich, white and adored.

Oh, right: she wants to be white. I was wondering if that was the direction we were headed in when the very dark-skinned Precious monologues that she wants a "light-skinned" boyfriend while daydreaming about her white math teacher. Then I noticed that the heroes in her life are the comparatively light Paula Patton and her social worker, who is played by Mariah Carey as a character of indeterminate ethnicity (Precious asks her if she is Italian at one point, presumably confused by Carey's having a different accent in every scene). Finally, there's the scene where Precious is doing her hair and imagining herself in the mirror to be a skinny blonde white girl.

I guess this is all supposed to be representative of Precious' self-loathing. The only thing she's ever been good for is acting as receptacle for her father's demons and the story, such as it is, charts her ascent into self-worth and independence (or rather, dependence on the lighter people teaching her the alphabet and handing her welfare checks instead of dependence on her useless Momma). But any empathy I could dredge up for this pathetic character's pathetic journey is drowned by Daniels' tonal inconsistency and blaxploitation. His treatment of this character is downright condescending; the most he can muster for her is pity. He scores one moment with "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?". Is that supposed to be funny?

In the end Precious will get the chance to tell off her evil mom without, for once, having something potentially fatal aimed at her skull and then she will walk off into the sunset with not one but both babies in her arms. This is supposed to be a win, I guess, even though her sensible teacher has spent much of the previous hour of the film trying to convince her to give them up for adoption. Why? Because there's no way for Precious to balance raising two kids, getting her GED, possibly getting AIDS and dealing with the psychological aftermath of being knocked up twice by your own dad. The film lobs so many insurmountable obstacles in Precious' path, but the implication is that if she can, you know, carry two babies out of a building and down the sidewalk, she will also find a cure for AIDS. Whatever. You go, girl. Triumph over that adversity.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!


  1. At least she doesn't wander out into the street and do a Bollywood dance number with the two babies. Small blessings, Todd.

  2. Also, a NY Times article pertinent to the issues discussed here:


    Oh, and I also meant to say, because I think you'd be interested to know:

    1) I've read the first 16 (?) pages of the book, and found myself pretty enthralled, and pretty impressed with how respectfully Precious's inner voice was (at least initially) being created. Then I had to put it back on the library hold shelf for the patron who actually requested it.

    2) From reading my various intersectional feminist blogs, I've been seeing a LOT of coverage of both the movie and the book, and thus I can tell you that the writing teacher and, I think, the social worker are both meant to be dark-skinned characters, to avoid exactly the dynamic you write about here.

    And also again: those opening titles sound a-fucking-palling. They sound like possibly the worst thing ever.

  3. No judgments either way about the book; I have not read it and am in no position to comment.

    If the social worker is black in the book, I find it fascinating that this role went to Mariah Carey. I hadn't researched this for my write-up, but now I see that according to wikipedia, Mariah Carey is the daughter of an "Irish American [mother] and her father was of Afro-Venezuelan and African American descent". So, she's as "black" as Halle Berry. Is Carey's lineage common knowledge? Should I have known this?

    None of it changes my point. While I am not in any subjective position to comment on the nuances of racial dynamics between light- and dark-skinned African Americans (although I am somewhat reassured that, in the article you linked to, the professor at Emory backs me up on this very point), the racial spectrum as delineated by the film very clearly shows "light" to correlate with "good" and "smart".

    Anyway, I think it's telling that the defenders of the film in the TIMES article describe the film as, variously, a what-if or a worst-case scenario. Oprah seems to think of PRECIOUS as allegorical to every black story in America. The closing credits' dedication "to all precious women" reveals, finally, what people like about the movie: we have it better than Precious, and so through pity and condescension we are moved.

    Oh, and there absolutely is dancing. Precious spends the whole movie fantasizing about her life having exactly the kind of ending as Jamal's in SLUMDOG.

  4. There's more:


    ...in which A.O. Scott compares PRECIOUS to THE BLIND SIDE (which I have not seen) and discusses that both films have been received by some as stories of how black people need white people to get by. He implies this is society's problem and that the films are just holding up mirrors.

    While I think Scott's argument is somewhat irresponsible, it's nice to see this issue getting some ink. Perhaps I underestimated the amount of people who will go see the movie Oprah tells them to but then are able to tell that it is a piece of shit.

  5. For once, I wasn't trying to argue-- just passing along some information to deepen the arguments you've already made. I mentioned the book to show that the casting was clearly contrary to the author's intentions which in almost every case (save those involving Stephenie Meyer) I associate with making the film worse. I can't really comment on the movie, having not seen it, but reports I've read elsewhere have been intriguing. One of the "defenders" of Precious from that NY Times piece, Latoya Peterson, actually-- at great length-- makes the same argument you have about the light skinned dark skinned dynamic in this post: http://www.racialicious.com/2009/11/06/long-days-journey-into-night-reading-push-watching-precious/

    She still supports the movie, and the book (in fact, her appreciation of the former is probably deeply informed by her experience with the latter), but she her support is a lot more complicated than the NY Times presents it as.

  6. I felt sick watching this. You've already touched on the more important reasons why, but I was so angry throughout that I found myself nitpicking about the stuff that *isn't* even critical to the storyline. For one thing, I rushed home intent on confirming the timelines for both Oprah and AIDS - while both were around in 1987, there's no way they would have been talked about the way the dialogue (well, 'dialogue') here represents them.

  7. The titles are reflective of the way Precious's own journal is written/translated in the book. It's not at all cutesy.

  8. Thank you for the comment, Anonymous.

    Again, no judgments here on the book either way. But the film is inherently third-person, and must assume some kind of perspective through which to view the way Precious writes and thinks.

    Introducing it in the credits like that struck me as "cutesy", which is perhaps a reductive term, but the combination with that, the fantasy sequences and the song cues felt inappropriately comedic. And if you watch Daniels on THE DAILY SHOW, he says that he treated it as a "comedy" and that "we didn't take ourselves too seriously." Strong words.