November 19, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire

Get Ur Bleak On

Grade: C

Director: Lee Daniels

Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Sheperd, and Lenny Kravitz

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Only an African-American filmmaker could get away with making Precious. That’s meant as both a compliment and a criticism.

Officially known as Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire, the film has been a runaway train of accolades since its Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award wins at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with a final destination undoubtedly bound for the Academy Awards.

Set in the mean streets of Harlem circa 1987, it is a story of inspiration and uplift that shines a light onto a world that is both foreign and, thankfully, unfamiliar to most people. Unfortunately, it is equal parts illumination and exploitation, a prefabricated passion play as pretentious as its full title. It is not that the horrific life endured by obese, illiterate teenager Chaireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is far-fetched. You need only to peruse the morning newspaper or the nightly TV news to know that the world is an unspeakably brutal place for a great many people.

The cruel hand that life deals to Precious includes poverty, being repeatedly raped and impregnated twice by her absentee father (the first child afflicted with Down syndrome), and suffering constant physical and emotional abuse from her welfare mom, Mary (Mo’Nique). Precious’ hulking mass acts as both a prison and protection from harrowing reality, her lone means of escape a vivid imagination in which she walks Hollywood red carpet premieres and dances in music videos. Old photographs of her mother become animated in her mind’s eye, uttering the loving words never breathed by the flesh-and-blood incarnation. Sometimes, Precious’ own reflection in the mirror morphs into the image of a blond, white girl.

That Precious harbors self-loathing is painful but understandable. What is regrettable is the extent to which producer-director Lee Daniels himself indulges, even perpetuates, the racial stereotypes a film of this sort should transcend. In one scene, Precious steals and scarfs down an entire bucket of fried chicken (not exactly Jean Valjean pinching bread to feed his family). Virtually all the innocent and/or benevolent figures in Precious’ life are cast with light-skinned actors. And, without proper context, you could be excused for walking out of Precious believing the welfare rolls are filled primarily with uneducated, dysfunctional, AIDS-infested freeloaders who regard their children as a means to a welfare check to subsidize their indolence.

That segment of the population exists, no doubt. The sin here, however, is a lack of perspective. The cure for Precious’ harsh home-life proves to be her GED prep class, whose only dissimilarity with a setting like Freedom Writers and its ilk is that the teacher here, Blu Rain (Paula Patton), isn’t Caucasian. Precious also enjoys helping hands from a welfare caseworker (a glammed-down Mariah Carey) and hospital nurse (Lenny Kravitz). That would be well and good were it not for a scene late in the film in which Precious befriends another young girl at the welfare office whose vicious mother reminds Precious of her own. The message is clear and misguided: The fault lies not with government or philanthropic support systems but with those who either misuse or reject them.

It is a viewpoint born, like the film, out of self-congratulatory, limousine liberalism – quite literally in the case of co-producer Oprah Winfrey, who was so touched by this movie that she vowed to look twice at the forgotten street-corner souls she passes while cruising by in her’s. The near-total absence of men is fitting given the involvement of both O. and co-producer Tyler Perry, who has made millions dressing in drag and peddling his own farcical interpretations of African-American women.

Precious’ psyche unmasks Daniels’ pretension when she inserts her and her mother as the Italian-speaking protagonists in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women, a peculiar fantasy considering Precious reads at a second-grade level and confesses that Ms. Rain and her lesbian lover “talked liked TV stations I didn’t even watch.” Moreover, Daniels betrays a predilection for the most salacious elements of his character’s misery. Flashbacks to Precious’ rape are intercut with images of sweat, Vaseline, frying bacon, and pig’s feet simmering in a stovetop stew.

And then there’s Mo’Nique’s highly touted performance, which is volcanic and emotionally raw. Her despicable, almost cartoonish virago is also among the vilest fictional characters ever put on film (on a par with Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and Dylan Baker’s pedophile in Happiness). Only during a late-film monologue does she finally approach anything close to a three-dimensional person, but in the event you’re tempted to view her as the least bit human, the reproving glare of Carey’s Mrs. Weiss is there to set you straight.

Precious is nicely produced, well-acted, enlightening, and both culturally and racially deplorable. In other words, D.W. Griffith would have been proud.

Neil Morris

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