Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire opens Friday throughout the Triangle
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 located at the Academy Awards.
Set in Harlem circa 1987, Precious 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's also a prefabricated passion play as pretentious as its full title. It's not that the horrific life endured by the obese, illiterate teenager Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is far-fetched. You need only to peruse your preferred news source to know that the world can be an unspeakably brutal place for a great many people.
The cruel hand that life deals to Precious includes poverty, the repeated rape and impregnation by her absentee father (the first child has 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 only 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 imagination, with the woman 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 such self-loathing is painful but understandable. What is regrettable is the extent to which producer-director Lee Daniels himself indulges—even perpetuates—racial stereotypes. In one scene, Precious steals and scarfs down an entire bucket of fried chicken (not exactly Jean Valjean pinching bread to feed his family). Worse, virtually all of the benevolent figures in Precious' life are cast with light-skinned actors. And, without context, you could be excused for walking out of Precious believing the welfare rolls are filled with uneducated, HIV-positive freeloaders who regard their children as a means to a welfare check to subsidize their indolence.
Precious' psyche unmasks Daniels' pretension when she inserts herself and her mother as the Italian-speaking protagonists in Vittorio De Sica's Two Women, a strange fantasy considering Precious reads at a second-grade level and confesses that her teacher, Blu Rain (Paula Patton), 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 a welfare caseworker (played by a de-glammed Mariah Carey) is there to set you straight.
Precious is nicely produced, well acted, enlightening—and deplorable. In other words, D.W. Griffith would have been proud.