Precious gives voice to the voiceless
by Suzi Steffen
PRECIOUS : Directed by Lee Daniels. Written by Geoffrey Fletcher. Adapted from the novel Push, by Sapphire. Cinematography, Andrew Dunn. Music. Starring Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe, Sherri Shepherd. Lionsgate, 2009. R. 110 minutes.
Just before Precious came out, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story with a title that served both as spoiler and as indicator of what the NYT thinks about its demographics.
“Is America ready for an obese Harlem girl?” the headline began — as though obese women couldn’t be American, as though Harlem (and its easily decoded meaning, i.e., black) were located in another country than is the rest of New York.
But don’t be fooled: Precious is America, or was the America of the 1980s, where crack and AIDS terrorized swaths of the Harlem and the Bronx. The America of Precious mixes abuse and despair with tenacity and a tiny sliver of hope. The film suffers from an abundance of whimsical cinematography and a few sentimental moments, but its strengths overwhelm those weaknesses.
At the beginning of the film, a 15-year-old girl sits in math class and never, ever talks, even though she knows exactly what’s going on with the numbers on the board. Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) harbors reserves of emotion and intelligence that rarely escape her lips. This means Sidibe must convey Precious’ feelings and experiences through her eyes and actions, and through voiceover fantasies of love, wealth and fame. Precious, pregnant with her second child, doesn’t get to say much at the beginning of the movie.
Her life isn’t pretty. Her first child has Down syndrome and lives with Precious’ grandmother, so Precious rarely sees her. That might be a blessing: In the apartment where Precious lives, her mother (Mo’Nique) throws her around, gives her orders, undermines her chances and even tries to kill her, all the while maintaining a false front of affection when welfare workers visit.
Oscar whispers started for Mo’Nique’s performance as the manipulative, vicious mother long before the movie opened, and those whispers should rise to a clamoring roar: Mo’Nique stays fearless and riveting in the role throughout the movie, down to the last second she’s on screen. Without her, the film would tread far more banal ground.
The movie has a bit of a problem: The dark-skinned Precious gets her opportunities mostly from lighter-skinned people, including a principal (Nealla Gordon) who expels her but also finds her a spot in a last-chance school called “Each One Teach One;” her teacher at that school (Paula Patton); a nurse (Lenny Kravitz) at the hospital where she gives birth to her son; and her social worker, Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey, another celebrity who strips off the glamour for a solid performance). But Precious makes choices on her own and contains some core of survival and self-regard that makes those opportunities possible.
Patton looks lovely, the most beautiful teacher any cash-strapped last-resort-for-urban-kids school ever had. Is another savior-teacher what the film world needs? In this case, despite a few missteps when the teacher provides refuge for Precious, the answer is a qualified yes. After all, many teachers and social workers in NY (and Eugene) do work their damnedest to help kids survive and escape horrific circumstances. What makes the school scenes work, though, are the other young people in Precious’ class, who provide her with a tenuous community of tentative friendships, something she has never experienced before (Xosha Roquemore and Chyna Layne stand out, but the entire group of young actors makes these scenes the most alive of the film).
The narrative seesaws between realism and hyperfantasy, campy moments in which Precious imagines herself loved, dressed by fashion designers, feted and adored. That creates some whiplash, yet we’re meant to see just where Precious gets her dreams and determination. The searing closing scene doesn’t end on a note of joy or triumph. Still, there’s satisfaction for the audience in watching Precious speak the truth and begin to shape her life. The credits begin with a dedication to all the Precious girls everywhere, and that’s when the emotions truly hit: These are people’s real lives, in our city, in our state, in our America.