As revered film critic A.O. Scott notes, America may conveniently never find the right time to talk about race. And yet, to suggest there is race-based “buzz” about the film “Precious” would be a severe understatement. So while the Unites States may never muster up the courage to have a real dialogue about race (as if only one definitive conversation would be wholly necessary), at least the U.S. is playing verbal volleyball on the subject, even if behind the veiled comfort of critiquing “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” a fictional film based on a fictional novel. The term “work of fiction” thus takes on many so many meanings.
For those who somehow haven’t heard the roaring buzz, “Precious” is a film directed by Lee Daniels (a complex individual himself whose remarks, to say the least, are dually worthy of as much public scrutiny as his film). The film is based on the contentious fiction novel Push, authored by African-American female writer Sapphire. In short, both the film and the book reveal the story of an overweight teenage girl name Claireece “Precious” Jones and her series of misfortunate events; life traumas she is virally subjected to including rape, incest, verbal and physical abuse, HIV infection, multiple impregnations by her father, a child with Down Syndrome, illiteracy, obesity, colorism and so, so much more. All this (and then some) takes place in the backdrop (or forefront) of 1980s Harlem, an era of economics and AIDS that could easily be the silent/second lead character of the film.
“Precious” was released in theaters earlier this November and due to its widespread “success” and attention, it is slated to open in some additional 800-odd theaters nationwide during the Thanksgiving holiday. The film has already swept up an armsful of awards on one hand and on another has made many want to sweep its troubling and provocative cultural imagery under the rug of the collective consciousness. While lauded for its “raw” depiction of the extreme obstacles and violence that the title character face, alternate critiques suggest that “Precious” perpetuates the gross stereotypes of poor black folk that Obamanites prefer to, well sweep under the rug.
Film-wise, Lee Daniels left much to be desired. The sometimes overly-stylized editing choices are more often that not unnecessary, although the trendy effect of the handheld camera look is effective in depicting the film’s sense realism. Although the film tries to stick as close to the original novel as possible, the storytelling, including dialogue and characters actions are at times problematic. Moreover, Daniels’ casting choice is really what does the film its biggest disservice. Pulling from his card deck of celebrity friends and first-time actors, the director’s choice of casting worked when he took risks, for example by casting comedian Mo’Nique to play one of the most notoriously “wicked” mothers to ever hit the big screen; Mariah Carey devoid of all her Mimi-glamour to play an everyday caseworker; and newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe to play the title role (lucky for Gabby, Hollywood’s dearth of plus sized, dark-skinned female actors was her ticket to stardom). Alternately, Daniel’s strategic and yet lazy casting choices included the overly sympathetic Paula Patton as Ms. Blu Rain, a basic education teacher who tears up during the first day of class at the mere sight of her hopeless students, and Lenny Kravitz as Nurse John, an organic food eating male nurse who somehow finds it appropriate to kiss new patients on the forehead. In fact, it is these casting choices and other directorial decisions that lend the film to the heated debate about its “mis”representation of poor Black folk.
When it comes to representations of Black people, there is often a fine line between realism and stereotypes. “Precious” teeters on that fine line like a tightrope walker tiptoeing between two skyscrapers. Or better yet, an obese tightrope walker tiptoeing between the rock of Hollywood storytelling and the hard place of American audiences. Misrepresentation, in this case however, is a misnomer for the kind of representing that the film does. Go to Harlem in 1987 (and in 2009) and you will see Black people eating chicken. You will see obesity. You will see illiteracy. You will see unfit mothers. Of course that is not all you will see in Harlem, but to present these realities doesn’t make you a just-add-water instant racist. However if you, like the filmmaker, have some serious internalized and projected issues with (poor) Black people, those issues will inadvertently manifest and reveal themselves in a touchy film such as Precious.
But if anything the talk and coverage of the film reveals so much more about people’s attitudes on race and representation than the film ever possibly could alone. New York Times Magazine “glamour shots”; of the main actors expose its not-so-subtle racial biases by purposefully zooming in on the light-skinned actors (Mariah Carey and Paula Patton) who are set against a black background, allowing their fair skin glow (similar to many shots of Ms. Rain during the film), while the heavier, darker female actors (Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe) are set against a white backdrop in full frame revealing less of their faces and more of their bodices. Typical. Then there is cinematic critic Armond White who blasts the film and its patron saints Oprah and Tyler Perry for the same reasons writer “Ak” cites the movie as “pornographic pathology”. However for White, describing any Black woman as “hippopotamus-like” seems just as, well, hypocritical. Ak and other writers like Juell Stewart illuminate one point of (dis)content(ion) with the film’s presentation – the lack of circumstantial or environmental explanation. Stewart writes “Director Lee Daniels makes the critical mistake of ignoring the social and political reality that his characters inhabit… To ignore 1987 Harlem as the foundation for the permanent Black underclass created by the Reagan Administration through its abhorrent social reform policies—including the War on Drugs and welfare reform”.
In staying true to its literary predecessor, the film is very much allegorical rather than explanatory. Thus while airing the dirty sheets of the Black community can be risqué I appreciate the implicit understanding that films such as Precious assumes for certain audiences. Rather than taking an anthropological approach in dissecting the multiple realities that the film exhumes for the purpose of placating mainstream audiences, the film opts to serve as a moving picture, a glimpse into issues that typically fall behind the eyelids of mainstream purview. Afterall whether we like it or not, “Precious” is as real as it gets for many, both in spite and as a result of socioeconomic cause and effect. White was foolish to assume that some of the film’s most difficult scenes “might have been met howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem’s Magic Johnson theater.” Indeed this was not the case when I saw the film at the MJ theater in Harlem. If White had actually ventured to Harlem to see the film with Black audiences he would understand how off the mark he was, and how his assumptions about black audiences, delivered to his predominantly mainstream white audience, also does our community a grave disservice.
At the end of the day, strictly as a film Precious leaves much to be desired. As a topic, Precious invites much to be discussed. Any film that has the kind of extreme or ripple effect reaction because of its content is worthy of seeing and worthy of song (good or bad). The one thing I will give Daniels a nod for his is statement about the reality of Precious. “At the end, it’s just this girl, and she’s trying to live. I know this chick. You know her. But we just choose not to know her.” Indeed it is those that choose not to know her, that could have the most extreme reactions to meeting her on the big screen, god forbid in real life. After all, gems like Precious are everywhere, all around, in broad daylight. All one has to do is open one’s eyes.