Looking for Precious
Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo, The Crisis
The season's most talked-about film has drawn criticism, attracted praise and prompted soul searching debates.
For weeks, I waited for Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire in the movie theaters. The film was in release, the critics were publishing controversial reviews but, bizarrely, the movie still wasn't playing. For all the buzz, Lee Daniels' Precious was the most talked-about film in African American cinematic history that none of the brothers and sisters were seeing outside of New York and California.
Before they saw the movie, many Americans already knew the sad, sad story, as based upon the 1996 novel: Claireece "Precious" Jones (played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is an obese, 16-year-old illiterate living in Harlem in 1987. Precious has had two children by her own father. Daddy rapes her, while her mother mooches off welfare and looks the other way. The abused Precious retreats inside a perverse fantasy life filled with images of racial self-hatred. She is rescued from more abuse by the intervention of social workers and teachers connected with the fictional Each One/Teach One program. Under the guidance of a positive Black role model, Ms. Blu Rain, Precious begins to read, write and discover an inner sense of dignity. Just as life appears to be offering her brighter prospects, Precious learns that her father's violent molestations left her with the AIDS virus.
Film critic Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote, "The truth is that all Blacks harbor a bit of Precious inside them. To one degree or another, we have all lived her, been her." Written in an early review, the words were precipitous. Precious - despite its early faltering steps - has become a commercial success, earned eight NAACP Image Award nominations and reaped major film prizes. But positive reviews have been answered by hostile and sometimes vitriolic accusations that the movie stereotypes the very segment of society it purports to render visible. Judge the movie as you will, but Precious easily joins Do the Right Thing and The Color Purple in a triptych of the most controversial Black films of the past 25 years.
The 1985 debut of The Color Purple may come closest to setting a precedent for Precious. Both films are based upon novels - narrated in the first person - by feminist Black women; both novels are tales of sexual abuse. Celie's story as presented in The Color Purple provoked discussion of Black male patriarchy and the hush-hush subject of domestic violence against women. Precious has compelled debates over welfare culture, familial dysfunction, colorism and the representations or caricatured misrepresentations of Black pathology in film.
For all its pathos, Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple was an uplifting film. Most viewers were inspired by its account of Celie's passage from domestic bondage to belated selfhood, seeing in the film a profound metaphor for Black liberation struggles. Celie's victory became our own. First a book, then a movie, the story was eventually transformed into a successful Broadway musical. The Color Purple's longevity has confirmed its widespread appeal. But how does its touching universality compare to Precious' kitchen-sink melodrama?
Precious forces the viewer to confront the ugliest aspects of contemporary society: poverty, illiteracy, depravity, sexism and violence against women committed by men and by a female family member. It offers mere glimpses of a world beyond a literate, educated and benevolent Black middle class.
Whether one decides that Precious may be an uplifting parable in its own right, the story of "the birth of a soul" (Entertainment Weekly) or whether one takes the harsher view that the film's stereotypes, whether cynically manipulated or naive biases, make it so egregious that, as film critic Armond White declared, "not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of Black American life as much," going to see it has involved more than just a trip to the local cineplex. …