In the movie “Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire”, an obese black girl growing up in 80s Harlem is beaten and verbally abused by her selfish mother. The girl is pregnant with her second child after being raped again by her father. Still hopeful for a better life, the girl enrolls in a program that teaches wayward young women to get their G.E.D. Through the help of a saintly teacher and the support of her classmates, the girl finds confidence and love. The movie co-stars comedienne Mo’Nique, pop sensation Mariah Carey, and cross-genre musician Lenny Kravitz.
“Precious” is not a Hallmark movie. It is one of the best films of the year.
From the synopsis above, it would be reasonable to assume that “Precious” is nothing but the most trite, mawkish, and manipulative of movies. However, director Lee Daniels manages to dodge every trap and pitfall the premise sets for his story through his unwavering devotion to the honesty of Precious’ life. Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher never shy away from the brutality of Precious experiences but nor do they neglect the triumphs she achieves through her hope and dedication to succeed. There are those who may find it tough to believe that someone in Precious’ circumstances could have any hope but that’s what makes this character’s story worth telling. Furthermore, how does one measure hope? We can imagine how we would respond were we in her place but it’s beyond arrogant to assume that our response would be universal.
And Precious’ hope isn’t euphoric or myopic. There are times when we witness Precious’ hope as painful like when she looks in the mirror and wants to see herself as a pretty, blonde white girl. Her daydreams are her only escape from the harsh reality of her day-to-day life. Over the course of the film, Precious’ hope transforms from wishing others would love her but learning to love herself. It seems like a maudlin, self-indulgent success but it feels triumphant by conquering the constant pain stemming from her living with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique).
For most of the film, it’s easy to dismiss Mary as nothing more than an evil, malevolent force in Precious’ life. She’s a Disney villain who turns her own daughter into a servant so she can enjoy the leisure of watching shitty television and being fed crappy food as she subsists on welfare checks. Daniels is fully aware that the character could be an easily dismissed stereotype that diminishes the reality of Precious’ world. It was essential to find an actress who could be unflinchingly ugly and hateful. He found that actress in the unlikeliest of performers: comedienne Mo’Nique
Mo’Nique, for those who don’t know, has never been known for drama. She is associated with such films as “Soul Plane”, “Phat Girlz”, and the UPN sitcom “The Parkers” which introduced “Heeyyyy” into the popular American vernacular. After seeing her performance in “Precious”, she will be known as one of the best dramatic actresses working in Hollywood. Mo’Nique is a lock for a Best Supporting Actress nomination and I would say she’s the leading contender for winning it. To maintain the realism of this character and letting you know that she’s a person and her ugliness comes from painful regret and betrayal, Mo’Nique’s performance is a revelation.
While Mo’Nique’s work is astounding, not a single actor in this movie gives anything less than a powerful performance. Even Carey and Kravitz remove their Hollywood glamour to play just minor roles in the movie; they’re not angling for an award but supporting a story they believe in. I imagine some folks won’t even recognize them and that’s a tribute to their work here.
In her feature film debut, Gabourey Sidibe gives a breakthrough performance in as Precious. She holds every scene and lets us know that she has the strength to endure her abuse and the joy to appreciate the love she receives from the people who come into her life. Because of Sidibe, you never pity Precious. You cheer for her.
I’m sure at this point, “Precious” sounds like an unrelenting and depressing film that may be excellent but too relentless to enjoy. But Lee Daniels, whose only previous feature was the 1995 Cuba Gooding Jr. crime-drama “Shadowboxer”, crafts “Precious” into a film that pushes its audience to feel Precious’ pain but at the moment when it almost becomes too much to stomach, he lifts the film back into the air and allows the audience to smile, laugh, and breathe. His movie is an emotional roller coaster but Daniels lays every part of the track perfectly, knowing when to break the reality and bring one of Precious’ daydreams to life and when to show her life at its bleakest.
Some have criticized the film as an over-hyped con-job that preys on white liberal guilt. But I don’t feel guilty because I, aka Whitey, would find this film just as powerful if it were about an overweight white girl set in a crummy, impoverished small Midwestern town. I don’t have the arrogance to think that I understand how black people will respond to “Precious”. I do know that the horrors Precious encounters aren’t confined to impoverished black people. But it’s comforting to think that “Precious” is the product of executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry pushing a manipulative tale of African-American empowerment. That way we can easily dismiss it and prove that we see the strings, oh you puppetmasters.
There are so many ways to brush aside “Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” but once you see this film you won’t be able to let it go.