REVIEW: ‘Precious: Based on the Novel “PUSH” by Sapphire’

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Grade: B+

It was about halfway through the film Precious: Based on the Novel “PUSH” by Sapphire when something struck me. The title character had just survived a horrific confrontation with her mother when she arrives at school. Precious’s classmates’ reaction to seeing her clutching a baby wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket was to burst into brief fits of laughter. It was then that I realized that these characters exist in a crueler world than I could ever really understand and sometimes laughter is their only escape.

This moment is simply a microcosm in Lee Daniels’ uncomfortable yet poetic film. It is filled with moments so terrible that the characters simply have to laugh or else they may never stop crying. This is one of those films that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, your mouth agape, and your mind refusing to believe that such devastation could actually happen.

In some ways Precious is one of the most pathetic characters ever put on celluloid and in other ways she is the most inspiring. Lee Daniels doesn’t put his protagonist on a pedestal. He doesn’t shy away from revealing her flaws, which is so refreshing for this type of rags to riches film. Precious steals, she curses, and while her desires may be pure, she will do what it takes to get her freedom.

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Claireece “Precious” Jones lives in absolutely deplorable conditions. Her mother sits at home collecting welfare and verbally and physically abusing her daughter. She has been raped multiple times by her uninvolved father, getting pregnant by him twice. She is reading at a second-grade level and she is being kicked out of school again. Oh yeah, and she’s only 17 years old.

However, hope comes in the form of an alternative school in Harlem called Each One, Teach One, where students who could not make it in public schools go to prepare for their GED. At this school is the motivated teacher Ms. Rain, who comes just shy of approaching the Hollywood “inspirational teacher” cliché. Precious finds her life in a conflict as her devastating and static home life tries to pull her away from her positive and ambitious school life.

Director Lee Daniels has truly found his stride with this film. The painful realism is shot with minimal and stark lighting that reflects the dark world in which the characters exist. The classroom scenes are lit with fluorescent light that give those scenes the mundane routine feeling of an office boardroom. The difference is that in this world the “mundane routine” includes being forced to steal to eat, worrying if you’re going to get beat by local gangbangers, and being endlessly taunted by peers.

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The excellent novel PUSH by the poet Sapphire on which the film is based posed some serious challenges in the adaptation. For instance the book is written in broken speech as it is told in the first person by Precious herself. The filmmakers had to get into the mind of the protagonist otherwise it plays like an overly sympathetic underdog story. Geoffrey Fletcher’s screenplay does everything that it needs to. The film is sort of the reverse of the inspirational teacher cliché movie because it doesn’t give too much credit to the teacher. Precious is that student that has the desire and ability to do great things, she just needed somebody to tell her it was all right. She represents so many students in the American education system who find themselves in the same position.

Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe was excellent in her film debut as the title character. Her face remains emotionless as she suffers abuse and hardships and I think her performance can be best described as intelligent simplicity. However, the undeniable scene-stealer was Mo’Nique in the role of Precious’ abusive mother Mary. She seems to be an unrelenting force of evil in her daughter’s life until her motivations were revealed in a passionate monologue just before the film’s conclusion. Mo’Nique’s performance could be described as homicidal and a sense of uneasiness was felt in the theatre whenever she appeared on screen. Oscar-worthy is an understatement.

The element of Precious that is likely to spur the most discussion and will earn it the most awards attention, is actually the least well-executed part of the movie: its attempt at political commentary on race. Both Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry were so passionate about the film that the signed on as executive producers. However, the film has received a lot of criticism from black audiences who note that Precious is guilty of many “African-American” stereotypes and that other black characters in the film are portrayed as animalistic. In her hallucinations, Precious envisions herself as a white girl with a “light-skinned boyfriend.”

Despite all of this, I don’t think this film was intended to be about race. It’s about one girl’s struggle with identity, in which race plays a small part. While Precious’ identity crisis gets a nice resolution at the end, the racial issues that the film and its producers seem to constantly bring up left me scratching my head.

Bottom Line: Precious is not a film about race, but about identity and watching it with that mindset makes it an excellent movie-going experience.

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