Precious, directed by Lee Daniels

Precious, directed by Lee Daniels

This tale of the transcendence of wretched suffering retains some integrity despite pushing so many bleeding-heart liberal buttons

Squaring the Vicious Circle. Film review – Tom Jennings
Lee Daniels consistently chooses interesting projects transgressing conventional boundaries of race, class and sexuality – producing Monster’s Ball (2001: Halle Berry’s widow of executed murderer falling in love with Billy Bob Thornton’s prison guard), The Woodsman (2004: Kevin Bacon’s convicted paedophile struggling against reoffending), and Tennessee (2008: Mariah Carey’s battered wife fleeing to Country & Western stardom); and directing Shadowboxer (2005: Helen Mirren’s elite assassin having ‘incestuous’ relationship with adopted son Cuba Gooding Jr), and now Precious. Championed from obscurity to major distribution by high-liberals like Oprah Winfrey and sundry music industry pals, this film condenses the novel Push (1996) by performance poet and literacy teacher Sapphire which chronicles the 1987 Harlem passage of overweight, illiterate teenager Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) from passive household slave of her monstrous mother (Mo’Nique) to relative independence with her own two young children.
Our heroine’s suspended spiritual animation in a poverty-stricken, crack-ravaged family finds respite only in a blinged-out music video fantasy world where, at last, she feels valued. Expelled from school when her second pregnancy is discovered (resulting from regular rape by her father), she escapes physical, emotional and sexual maternal violence into a special educational programme. Here, thanks to fractious camaraderie among peers and the caring ministrations of welfare professionals (whose saintliness enormously strained my credulity), she slowly gains self-confidence, finally confronting her maternal nemesis. Overall, the sentimental trajectory recalls Alice Walker’s The Color Purple – thankfully without Spielberg’s glossy aestheticisation; instead Daniels focuses closely on Precious awakening from her lurid nightmare to the downbeat realism of muted light and colour, coaxing a tremendous restrained performance from the debutant Sidibe. But this hyper-individualisation hides the complexity of the social and cultural environment, encouraging purely personalised judgments about characters without sufficient context to understand them.
If Mo’nique deserves acclaim for her blistering but nuanced portrait of an infantile narcissistic ‘bad mother’, it’s ironic that the film was released contemporaneously with John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side, featuring Sandra Bullock’s pitiful Oscar-winning Sarah Palin schtick as a rich Southern mom mentoring a homeless Black kid to sports fame. Whether elite private or state-funded PC philanthropy, the cinematic goodness of paleface hearts remains, it seems, key to African-American uplift – despite a somewhat Pyrrhic victory for Precious (a 1980s HIV diagnosis being a likely death sentence). Daniels’ dedication – ‘To all the precious girls’ – is surely genuine, based on personal knowledge from a rough Philadelphia childhood, honouring all those from abusive backgrounds who don’t visit similar horrors on others. Unusually enough, he successfully depicts this hellish family anti-romance without succumbing to risks of ‘poverty porn’. But skimping on crucial social and historical detail as well as, cripplingly, convincing evidence of this survivor’s personal flowering, creates equally dishonest wish-fulfilment. Self-esteem after soul-destroying early years is hard-won enough, without pandering to the complacency not just of charitable celebrities but everyone whose relative privilege depends on a system devoted to reproducing the conditions which nourish depravity.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 7, April 2010.
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Tom Jennings
Apr 17 2010 18:34


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May 27 2010 01:24

Jesus fucking shitchrist that film was an ordeal to watch.