Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Reviewed in October 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Lee Daniels. Cast: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Xosha Roquemore, Chyna Layne, Angelic Zambrana, Stephanie Andujar, Amina Robinson, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz, Nealla Gordon, Bill Sage, Kimberly Russell. Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher (based on the novel by Sapphire).

Photo © 2009 Lionsgate/Lee Daniels Entertainment
If you have seen the trailer of Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, you essentially know how the film starts. Hulking through the hallways and stairwells of a public high school, mutely entrenched in the back row of a math class, Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) dreams of being anywhere but Harlem in 1987, preferably festooned in boas and flattering light, rocking a dance solo in a music video and having her neck nibbled by a light-skinned dreamboat. In a downscaling of these fantasies that is funny, sad, and poignant at the same time, she admits that she would leap just as quickly at the chance to marry her white math teacher (Bill Sage) and nest with him in some rambling house in Westchester—so maybe this isn't such a downscaled fantasy after all. And maybe nothing could be, compared to her present circumstances: unable to read despite her A– in English, embarrassed by her tremendous body, loveless, pregnant for the second time by her absentee father, cut off from her profoundly disabled firstborn who lives with her grandmother, and virtually incarcerated in the evenings inside the Stygian, brown-lit, two-floor apartment that she shares with her mother Mary (Mo'Nique). Mary is a coiled viper who sits and steeps in front of the TV, mentally flipping through the pages of her raging resentments, preparing monologues of withering fury that she eventually spouts off to the 16-year-old girl that she once, in some distant era that the film never accesses, cherished enough to endow with the name Precious. Ironically, that's still what she calls her; "Claireece" is almost completely vestigial, reserved for test-givers, clinicians, and bureaucrats. Sometimes Mary can't take the trouble to compose one of these blistering takedowns about how worthless Precious is, or else she has an appetite to build up to one in dramatic steps, so she hurls a heavy hairbrush or a potted plant across the room, or she pounds an iron skillet against the wall mere inches from her daughter's head. When the girl faints, out of fear or cerebral impact, Mary sloshes her face with water and asks when she can expect dinner.

For these reasons and, if you can believe it, more, Precious is never less than a troubling experience, though one could hardly expect less upon noting Lee Daniels's name as the director and creative engine (conceding the fact that without Sapphire's provocative novel, Precious wouldn't have a story). Daniels made his name producing the torridly miserabilist Monster's Ball and the effortfully somber The Woodsman, about a taciturn ex-child molester who either has or hasn't been rehabilitated by years in prison. Daniels's own directorial debut, 2006's barely released Shadowboxer, ran chock-a-block with exaggerated morbidities, but Daniels, possibly consumed by first-timer excitability, smothered no end of jewel-toned lighting effects and overweening stylistic flourishes over his already risky premise about childhood abuse, mob assassinations, murderous psychopathy, and pained sexuality. The latter arrived in most cases via two simultaneously intergenerational and interracial liaisons, presented by the keyed-up cinematography as though, for these very reasons, they were scandalous in themselves.

Precious showcases a more subdued Daniels, but not all the time, and mostly in the sense that Shadowboxer was such an admirably loco but overbearing exercise that almost any follow-up would come across as comparatively humbled. One at least senses Daniels making organized choices about when to outfit his movie with subjective fantasies, mordant film-within-a-film reenactments, and over-the-top edits, as when he repeatedly cuts from shots of Precious's barely-glimpsed father bearing down upon his daughter to some determinedly garish, abstracted inserts of frying eggs and simmering, gelatinous stews. Precious frequently plays as though Daniels conceived it as a mash-up of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Rob Marshall's Chicago, cable-stitching the audience into the unbearable heaviness of the protagonist's being, while chuting her regularly into a headspace of kinetic, colorful, flashbulbing projections: her only means of getting out, getting anywhere, getting all the way to BET.

Different viewers will have markedly different reactions to how well this approach works or how much emotional or formal sense it makes. I was surprised how gripping these cutaways eventually became, possibly because the hyped-up images and crashing soundworld of Precious's fantasyscape are almost as desperate and sensorily confrontational as whatever she's trying to disavow: a leering parent, an approaching blow, a world-ending diagnosis. Maybe I just found it sad that what Precious has to fall back on instead of an education or a confidant or even a well-nourished interiority is a junk-pastiche of fiberless culture (and in that way, though she surely suffers more than almost any of us, her coping strategies may differ less than we'd like to admit).

"Everything is a gift of the universe," an opening title card reminds us, but it's written in the impaired scrawl that the film teaches us to associate with Precious's lowest moments of wisdom and critical distance. It's entirely possible as Precious unfolds—especially after a deceptively throwaway moment when the movie proffers a run-down church and an exuberant choir as generic sites of redemption, only to have Precious walk on by, into much less conventional sources of succor—that Precious finally and semi-subversively denies that everything is a gift of the universe. In my emotional experience of the film, the compartmentalized dream of going full-tilt boogie in a glammed-out muumuu, to include the flashy grandiosity with which Daniels serves up this fantasy, seemed like yet another of life's pyrrhic offerings, more of its high-calorie but nutritionally hopeless gifts. If it's impossible to begrudge a character as beleaguered as Precious her fleeting sources of comfort, however dubious within her world, however ticklish or electrifying from the standpoints of form and tone, the film makes its own case for the ultimate inadequacy of these escapes.

This implicit idea helped, too, to tide me past the cacophonous way in which Precious claims to crave a life inside a BET video, and yet Daniels has hung most of her dreams of gratification around emblems of whiteness: the math teacher, the Madonna snapshots on her wall, the Madonna doppleganger hot-curling her bangs in her mirror. These icons occasionally turn key strata of the film into a harrowing post-date on Paris Is Burning, a despondent drag-ball in sociological hell, parading all the archetypal nightmares of emotional and material poverty (the obese teen, the truculent welfare queen, the haint of the demon-father), and installing whiteness, or at least epidermal lightness, as the exemplary way out. Precious is Venus Xtravaganza, dreaming of mirages whose very implantation as something to aspire to is a major reinforcement of her misery. There's a compelling logic at work here of internalized self-hatred, indicting a black culture industry and an adolescent audience that fail to question the racist association of dark pigments with spiritual devastations, but still, among all the minuscule consolations I wanted for Precious, and that I hoped Daniels might find room to give her, was at the very least a 1987 with a Whitney, an Iman, even a Huxtable, something to help the film, if not its character, detach just a bit from its sad flattery of the mostly offscreen world of whiteness. Queen Latifah cameos on the soundtrack, but I'd have killed to sneak even an evanescent glimpse of her into the mise-en-scène.

So, we've got a film where the main character lives in deep need of escaping her family and her circumstances, an excruciating sense of needing to escape her skin and her flesh, and some need, too, of escaping into a more nuanced, becalmed, and mature representation of her story. This isn't just a put-down of the film or of Daniels's work; at the most basic level, as I have just admitted, her Roxie Hartsy dreamworlds are candy-colored and lively enough that I wanted Precious to enjoy them, even as I felt the deep ambivalence of forcing more junk food into her system. Much more directly to the movie's credit, Daniels and his collaborators slowly plot and till some key sequences where Precious, her relationships, her conflicts, and her movie all come into steadier, clearer focus. I'm thinking of the scenes where Precious interviews with her welfare officer Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey, lending gravity and acuity to her line-readings and reaction shots) and, even more so, as she enters the world of an alternative schooling program called Each One, Teach One. Here, her optimistic instructor, the improbably named Blu Rain (Paula Patton), ushers her students through greater and lesser degrees of resistance into the alphabet, into means and habits of self-expression, and into at least a touchstone awareness of history.

Precious exudes its fullest confidence during these scenes, a sensitivity to the power and potential of quiet, fractious, lackadaisical, even uncertain transformations. Granted, Daniels is never above showing his hand a little bit. The first shot of Precious awaiting admittance into Each One, Teach One frames her against a rare primary field of red, yellow, blue, and green, and as she dissolves and double-exposes her way down the hallway and into the classroom, she treads for the first time into a world of cloudy copper lighting, so overexposed that it takes her eyes, and ours, a few moments to acclimate. It's no surprise to see education emerge as the beacon of hope in a tale like this, but just as gratifying and infinitely less expected is how much Precious is willing to slow itself—its narrative pace, its camera movements, the relative lengths of its shots—so that the heavy, deliberate, supervised time of a precarious but attentively governed classroom becomes its own sort of refuge. Paula Patton, despite edging a bit more than I'd like into an overt sanctification of Ms. Rain, renders her character in sharp, clean lines of empathetic resolve. The ensemble of actresses who play Precious's classmates, even the ones who court their own clichéd typologies—even Xosha Roquemore, who tries hard to pull an Emily Blunt and purloin the whole movie—bespeak the movie's least fussy matches of performer to character. Moreover, in their shifts among humor, bordeom, hostility, curiosity, stiffness, and solace, they bespeak an implied conviction that things can indeed inch forward for the better, for the individual and for the group, but that nothing and nobody changes quickly, or easily, or forever.

Sure, I would love it if movies let go of the old trope that forcing a room full of soul-battered and skill-lacking students to write every day in their journals is a self-evident shortcut to enlightenment and education. It's a miracle that our shit-canned world wasn't long ago redeemed by an emergency airlift of marble-covered composition books into every town and city. To be fair, though, there are unusual rewards to how painstakingly and compassionately Precious follows the progress from the barest minimum of speech to the absolute life-lines of writing and sharing words, unlike some movies that suggest that their recalcitrant characters only had to be persuaded to write, at which point they effectively teach themselves. Plus, in this film, there's a wickedly complicating charge to how Blu seizes upon this newfound medium for intimate communication, so as to counsel Precious to give up her newborn child, which is compassionately intended and fully thought-out advice, but is also exactly what Precious least wants to hear. From her standpoint, although Daniels softens the impact a bit by editing these exchanges as a montage, the compulsory cheerleading for freedom through education thus carries a dark cargo, a new kind of chastising authority. The implications and power dynamics are of course very different, but I was still reminded of when Harriet Jacobs learns to read in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl only to become newly privy to her master's handwritten notes, letting her know when he next plans to rape her. At the very least, within the African-American literary frame of reference, Precious, like The Color Purple before it (which, in Sapphire's novel, the girls read in Blu's class), inclines toward a trope that's been out there since Frederick Douglass. Literacy is salvation, we gather, but with key, feminist-inflected attention to the wearying labor of amassing these skills and to the harsh costs and unbidden messages that inevitably arise from one's entry into the world of verbal exchange.

Despite this bitterly apropos irony, Precious is often less convincing when Patton's character "teaches" than when the whole script drops anchor so that each student introduces us to her likes, dislikes, and self-perceptions, mercifully unrushed by the kind of quick-cut montage it's impossible not to expect. Watching these gals loll around in Precious's hospital room, or improvising on their own while Ms. Rain is making calls to emergency shelters, or inexplicably laughing in disbelief at Precious's latest misfortune, or even in the moment when Precious formidably assaults a nasty-acting peer, is to witness a film that is heightened without being histrionic, and which beautifully eases and unfolds the layers in Gabourey Sidibe's central performance, which is so effectively tensed for the first half-hour that her lines come out choked and her ability to chart the character's growth invites some doubt. In school, with Ms. Rain, and with Ms. Weiss, protagonist and interpreter come into their glory, assessing their surroundings and finding different pitches of interaction, softly lighting the face from behind the eyes, and demonstrating a dry but invigorating wit, as when she asks Ms. Weiss whether reviewing all of her traumas inside a cubicle is really the same as forming a friendship, or when she jokingly turns the tables on her inquisitor before revealing a canny ulterior motive. Precious doesn't grow up or get out over the course of this movie, and she doesn't even lose weight. Instead, if anything, she amasses palpable heft and density as a personality, rather than just a body. You can't imagine her thinking of herself, as she earlier did, as "ugly black grease to be washed from the street," despite the persistent prodigiousness of forces mounted against her. Precious projects a layered point of view that the audience learns to inhabit, and it's a tribute to Sidibe's instincts, Daniels's guidance of the performance, and the orchestrations of script, ensemble, camera, and cuts that we exit the theater with an exhilarating sense of a woman coming into her own, despite the intense cloud-cover of things that are already going profoundly wrong, and could easily go even more wrong.

I can see, then, why critics have been lamenting the sometimes hyperactive directorial hand, though at least the bizarre pantomime of De Sica's Two Women provokes a more complex response than the simplistic and grotesquely opportunistic use of Chaplin's The Kid in this season's Vincere. I can see why Precious's blooming from girl to woman, apart from the suffocating pile-up of narrative crises and the evident fact that her life never gets "fixed," has exerted such a claim on festival audiences all year. What I still can't wrap my mind around, and what for many readers will imply that I'm perversely burying the obvious lead of the review, is what to make of Mary, her missing boyfriend, her ballyhooed interpretation by Mo'Nique, and the structural and thematic dynamics of her relationship with Precious. On many levels, it's an imposing performance of a vital and memorable character. I worried in the first sequence, when Daniels keeps Mo'Nique's face and body all but occluded, as though she's the monster in Alien or a raptor in Jurassic Park, that the film was going to kowtow too much to her embodiment of monstrosity. That is, I feared Daniels would mar the performance by so conspicuously playing up to it, delaying our first impression but afterward pulling out every showcasing trick in the book, as happened with Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted and Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. Both of them had their films all but handed to them, and then an Academy Award passed over for services rendered, but neither Lisa nor Effie stood a fighting chance of emerging as a human character, not when they were being so giddily outshone by their directors' undisciplined impulses to win prizes for these show-stoppingly star-is-born performances.

Mary's "you ain't shit" castigations of Precious are like Effie's arias and Lisa's acid manipulations of fellow residents: they're the showpieces built into the performance. Mo'Nique knocks them out of the park with a bat that's all wood, no cork, but there's little she can do to make them feel less like Speeches. In truth, the spectacle of Gabby Sidibe standing utterly inert in the face of these assaults, arms and shoulders slumped like wet laundry, winds up anchoring these scenes and carving them back down to human scale. Redoubtable though she is in these scenes, Mo'Nique has harder work as an actress giving her comic chops a horrid new spin amid the pitch-black farce of a social worker's visit, when Mary pretends to be a doting grandmother of Precious's daughter—the girl with Down's Syndrome whom Mary typically describes as "the animal," and whom Precious refers to as "Mongo," perhaps without realizing the cruelty of that moniker. But at other times, poised like a rattlesnake, armed with a cigarette and a remote control, Mo'Nique has been directed a bit too strongly as Menace Incarnate, which sometimes explodes into entire, important scenes where "Mary" is totally gone and some implacable figure of stone-faced evil has taken her place, hurling infants to the ground and televisions down stairwells, but not in a way that connects with any textured specificity to the wounded, tempestuous person we have encountered at other moments, wielding her own cynical ignorance like a spiked cudgel. "What the fuck is a stipend? Fuck a stipend!" she howls, when Precious informs her that her switch to the alternative school has recalibrated the types and amounts of welfare they will be receiving. The jealous rival and imperious autocrat who dubs her daughter "Miss Onassis" when she starts harboring dreams for herself, and who keeps her hand stuck down the crotch of her pants while she mainlines 227 and The $100,000 Pyramid, just didn't jell with the zombie plotting death from the top landing of their apartment, or the archenemy who drops into a generically familiar whisper of faux-tranquility when she asks about a newborn she obviously detests, "Can I hold him?"

Precious can't quite decide whether Mary is a woman who has made herself monstrous or an atavistic symbol of all the aggressions and obscene invasions that make Precious's life almost physically impossible a good deal of the time, and even more often spiritually impossible. Mary is the Hannibal Lecter to Claireece's Clarice—a foe, a dark seer, a carnivore who thinks she's too good for the food she's actually served. But because Daniels, Mo'Nique, Sapphire, and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher won't commit to consigning Mary 100% into creaturely nonhumanity, which fundamentally speaks well of all of them, they cannot go the Silence of the Lambs route and leave her totally unfathomable. Consequently, Precious virtually ends with an already famous sequence in which Mary confesses, rationalizes, and weeps for her sins against her daughter, face to face with the stern but finally over-challenged Ms. Weiss. Carey is especially stellar in this scene, stenciling a precise line between what Ms. Weiss sadly hears all the time and what Ms. Weiss can hardly believe that she's hearing; she's compassionate enough to dart startled, protective looks toward Precious instead of gaping hypnotically at the roiling beast. But it's obviously Mo'Nique's scene, and she plays it with the scary, majestic bravura of an actress who has visibly lost herself in the boiling sea of the character. Daniels knows she's in this zone, and you can all but hear him shouting at the camera crew to tilt down and catch Mo'Nique's expressive hand gestures, lest they lose all these details by locking into the well-earned close-up. Jessica Lange in her prime might have cauterized the screen with this intensity of supplicating anger; watching Mo'Nique struggle tearfully with the word "Who" until it becomes a kind of empty whistle where this woman's heart used to be is a moment not to be forgotten, especially when, a single instant later, Mary's swaggering arrogance pours back into that hollowed space and she finishes a terrible question with her chin thrust out at her interlocutor. "Tell me that," she blares, abruptly indignant and aggrieved, "since you got all your degrees and you know every fuckin' thing!"

The whole scene blazes, surely as much as anyone could ever have hoped for, but it sent me out of the theater feeling worried and uncertain, in part because it's virtually the last thing in the movie. Somehow, the forced confession of Mary usurps the role of the dramatic climax; Precious volleys a brief, important response, and we get one more impression of her before the final fade to black, but these moments, not in what they impart but in how they wind up playing, verge too closely on the anticlimactic, at least by comparison. They're unfairly, maybe impossibly pressured to hold themselves up against Mo'Nique tearing whatever lid is left off of Mary's storehouse of guilty knowledge and vilely plausible self-defense. The problem is more than structural. By positioning Mary's testimony as the film's stentorian finale, every unsettling implication throughout Precious that it is catering to the audience's impulse to demonize, and that it has foisted the primary burden of wrongdoing away from the evaporated father-begetter and onto the complicit mother-annihilator, gets definitively underscored. Hortense Spillers has influentially argued that the recurrent trope of incest in African-American storytelling risks sensationalizing and allegorizing the plight of the characters, precisely at the expense of particularizing their stories and elucidating their meanings at a level the reader can articulately manage.

This is by no means whatsoever an argument for survivors keeping quiet. To the contrary, it labors against the sort of calculus I felt at the end of Precious: that it had turned its attention more toward a pyrotechnic probing of a culprit, caught red-handed amidst unforgivable crimes that she confuses with her own explanations, rather than erring on the side of enriching our sense of the victim. Indelible though they are, Precious's confrontations with the devil, anthropomorphized here as a woman who loves and caresses her cat while she hates and seduces her daughter, permit less than they initially promise on the level of graduated understanding. The appalling but measured incorporation of incest into a larger fabric of entrenched and unspoken familial affronts in Tina Mabry's recent Mississippi Damned, or in key fictions by Gayl Jones and Alice Walker, among others, is jettisoned here for higher, starker, more unilaterally potent, and for that reason more dubious dramatics. What's unfathomable in Precious's life stays unfathomable, and neither Mo'Nique nor Sidibe can shed much light on it. What's otherwise possible, elusive, painful, measurable, open-ended, truncated, and hopeful in her life can be revealed through pleasure and through other sorts of pain, even through the simple image of her awkwardly trying to carry two toddlers in her arms at once—but as presented here, incest can only stand in emblematically for a holistic Rock Bottom, in all of its opacity, and it too often tempts the mesmerizing, hard-working actors into playing absolutes and ghoulish apparitions instead of keeping a flexible, freestanding grip on their characters. Besides furnishing a platform to awards and artistic recognition for an underestimated performer, and besides setting a sure-fire stage for a high-impact conclusion, I worry that the filmmakers feed more prejudices than they illuminate or deconstruct by finding a new way to Blame It All on Mom. The highest praise I can give to Mo'Nique is how impressively and harrowingly she does manage to invest Mary with particularities, but awe-inspiring as they often are, neither the actress nor the film escapes unscathed from the almost juridical shaping of the material.

Even if the gossip blogs are right, though they never cease finding new methods and motives for being mean-spirited, I don't wonder that Mo'Nique has been reluctant to join the promotional tours, if only because this is the psychological and archetypal space she'd be forced again and again to inhabit. Still, I have an upsetting hunch that part of why her performance is registering so potently with so many audiences is because it affirms something that a lot of them may want to believe—that impoverished black Americans are their own worst plagues and problems, and that the root of their suffering is horribly, almost categorically unrepresentable, rather than inconveniently, economically rampant and therefore socially mappable. This is how Precious clears ground for salacious admissions and histrionic apologias, not without craft and muscle, but with less compassion and more calculation than might immediately be apparent. There is, finally, for me, too little margin for improved understanding. My audience, who moaned in despair on two important occasions when Precious eats, made the sorts of involuntary noises during and after Mo'Nique's final scene that would amount to condemnatory jeering if the power of the film and the acting weren't such that almost everyone's throats sounded a little too constrained for a full-on heckle. Thank goodness that so much of the rest of Precious, including every performance and forgiving every outlandish detour, makes clear that Lee Daniels and his team really do intend to help us to see, to make us understand, rather than simply proffering chances to rebuke what we despise, either in Precious's life or in our own cultural imaginary. Precious is far from perfect, but it has some pressing things to say and some paradigmatically marginalzed people to show us, as though we're seeing them for the first time. And despite some distracting clichés and distorting frames of reference along the way, perhaps we are. B

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Lee Daniels
Best Actress: Gabourey Sidibe
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Adapted Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher
Best Film Editing: Joe Klotz

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Actress (Drama): Gabourey Sidibe
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique

Other Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic); Audience Award (Dramatic); Grand Jury Prize for Acting (Mo'Nique)
Toronto Film Festival: People's Choice Award
Chicago International Film Festival: Audience Award
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Mo'Nique)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress (Sidibe); Best Supporting Actress (Mo'Nique); Best First Screenplay
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Supporting Actress (Mo'Nique)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (Mo'Nique)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Mo'Nique)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Mo'Nique); Best Ensemble Cast (tie)
National Board of Review: Breakthrough Actress (Sidibe)

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