Review: “Precious” (2009)
WARNING: GIFT-OF-THE-UNIVERSE SPOILERS
“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” is set in Harlem in the 1980s, a hopeless period for both race relations and social progress in America. If the 1960s was the two steps forward, the 1980s was the one step back. One image from the period, and the film, is particularly weighted with hopelessness to me. With all of the crime in the streets, with all of the crime in the homes, there in the classroom is a poster of McGruff the Crime Dog, a cartoon hound in a trenchcoat, urging kids to “Take a bite out of crime.” How exactly? By speaking up? By getting an adult? And if the adult is the crime? McGruff is a harbinger of the very thing he fights. He shows up only where crime is rampant and offers nothing. He’s a symbol of impotence.
He’s also a symbol of one of the three universes of “Precious.” All of them are depressing.
The first and worst universe is the brutal, everyday world that Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) lives in. She’s 16, fat, black, illiterate. Sexually abused by her absentee father since age 3, she’s now pregnant with his second child. The first child, who has developmental problems, is being raised by her grandmother, while her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), lives off welfare, watches TV all day, and is emotionally and physically abusive to Precious. She tears down Precious every day with a stream of verbal abuse; if Precious is unresponsive she resorts to the physical kind. Precious is also attacked in the streets and ignored in the schools. There is nowhere she is safe.
Except in the second universe, her fantasy universe, where she often goes after being physically abused. Here she wears feather boas and is photographed on red carpets. She’s on BET and magazine covers. She’s beautiful, important, and loved by a light-skinned boyfriend, but the universe is depressing for being so distant from her reality, and for being a slightly more glamorous version of the empty, cheesy shows her mother watches. Who would even want to live in this universe? Only someone whose reality is the first universe.
The third universe is the solution. When administrators at her public high school discover she’s pregnant with her second child, most likely sexually and physically abused, and virtually illiterate, they release her to a special program in an alternative school, “Each One, Teach One,” which is run out of the 11th floor of the Hotel Theresa. Her intro there is inauspicious. The receptionist puts personal phone calls ahead of administrative duties, doesn’t even expect Precious (though there’s hardly a clog of humanity at the place), and needs copies of a phone bill and her mother’s budget to complete the bureaucratic process. Precious’ second day begins even worse. She needs money for food but her mother is masturbating in bed and ignores her. So Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken and eats most of it on the way to school, before throwing it back up in a school garbage can beneath a sign reading: “Try for a better future.” There are such self-esteem signs all over the school. One reads: “Determination.” In another, the following words form a circle: “feeling good about yourself will lead to more reasons for” and back to the first word. Plus there’s McGruff. That harbinger of good times.
When Precious finally enters the classroom (via white light?), the feeling-good-about-yourself times continue. The students, five or six girls, are asked by their teacher, who goes by the name Blu Rain (Paula Patton), to talk about something they’re good at. After the movie, walking down Broadway on Capitol Hill, my girlfriend Patricia commented with amazement on how “all of those girls were so different.” One’s a tough Chicana, one’s a lesbian, one’s from Jamaica, etc. “That’s the point,” I replied flatly. “I know,” she responded, “But...” She liked it. She was caught up in it. I wasn’t. I also wondered about casting. If the classroom was supposed to be feel-good, how did Paula Patton wind up as Ms. Rain? She’s pretty enough to make Halle Berry feel like something the cat dragged in.
And so our first and third universes battle for the soul of Precious. The caring teacher vs. the uncaring mother. One props up, one drags down. “You’re special, Precious.” “You think you’re special, Precious?” Ms. Rain has the students write every day, and the book, “Push,” by Sapphire, is in the first-person, so you get a sense of the progress Precious makes through the writing itself. That might be interesting. On the other hand, it is reminiscent of “The Color Purple,” which was a best-seller, and then a hit movie, a few years before the time “Precious” is set in. Aspects of “Precious” also reminded me of “The Bluest Eye,” Toni Morrison’s first novel, which was published in 1970, and which I read around the time Precious was first walking into that classroom, when Sapphire herself was a remedial reading teacher in Harlem and dealing with girls like Precious every day. I guess every generation needs their version of this story; I guess it’s why it felt old to me.
No, it’s worse. Parts of it feel like a lie. Even as Ms. Rain tells Precious it’s OK to be fat and black (but not illiterate), the good people in the film—Ms. Rain, Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz), and, to a lesser extent, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey)—are thin, good-looking, light-skinned. That’s what good is in this universe. “But you’re still beautiful, Precious.”
The movie’s villain, meanwhile, is fat and black. Mary allows her child to be sexually abused and then blames the child for taking away her man. She’s also an argument against welfare—wasting her life in a small cluttered apartment and watching the worst TV has to offer. There are few cinematic moments more depressing than Mary doing a bump-and-grind while smoking and watching Florence Henderson give clues on “$100,000 Pyramid.” The horror of our culture is in that moment. The waste... The waste...
Mo’Nique is smart enough to play Mary as the victim—that’s how she sees herself. It’s a great performance and Mo’Nique deserves her accolades. Put it this way: I believed Mary. I believed Ms. Weiss, too. She’s fighting the good fight but she also has the tired, thousand-yard stare of the career bureaucrat. With the world the way it is, you can only care so much. After her appointment with Precious, she has one with, say, Angela, and another with Bettina, and Clarice, and on and on until five o’clock, at which point she gets to punch out and grab a drink, and then do it all again tomorrow. Five days a week, 52 weeks a year. With that schedule, how much emotion do you put into your 10:15? Carey plays her right. But Ms. Rain? She cares. Deeply. Particularly about Precious. Because Precious is precious? No, because we’re watching Precious’ story rather than Rita’s story, or Rhonda’s or Jermaine’s or Joann’s or Consuelo’s. Ms. Rain has to care more about her because we care more about her. “Your baby loves you,” she tells Precious. “I love you.” In a gritty, horrific story, Ms. Rain is wish-fulfillment. That’s why I didn’t believe her. Or the movie.