Monday, November 23, 2009
By Elise Nakhnikian
“What do I mean if I say the author portrays her protagonist’s situation as unrelenting?” asks Miss Rain (Paula Patton), the Christlike teacher who saves Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), the teenage Job at the center of Precious.
Oh, Miz Rain! Miz Rain? Over here, Miz Rain! That one is just too easy.
Precious is based on Push, a well-received novel published in 1996. The story is set in 1987, and the costumes and sets invoke the period deftly, but the boom boxes and shoulder pads aren’t the only things that feel retro.
Precious is a product of the identity politics that was just finding its voice in the ‘80s, often shouting to be sure it was heard. Despite the extravagant splashes of color director Lee Daniels uses to illuminate Precious’ fantasies, this simplistic tale of victims and perpetrators, good guys and bad, darkness and light is essentially a black-and-white movie.
Darkness and light play out in terms of electrical wattage: Precious’ oppressive home is a cave, while blinding floods of light welcome her into Miss Rain’s classroom and into the fantasies she escapes into when reality gets too grim. They’re also at war in Precious’ painful awareness of her dark skin, which she experiences as a curse.
No doubt light skin plays better than dark in America -- and did even more so two decades ago -- but her melanin level is the least of Precious’s problems. Morbidly obese and functionally illiterate, she is 16 years old and pregnant with her second child by a father who seems to come home only to rape her. Her daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, is being raised by her grandmother, and she rarely sees her either. So she basically lives alone with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), a perpetually erupting volcano of physical and emotional abuse.
Daniels would like us to think that this is gritty realism. In fact, it’s more like a ghetto version of one of those post-WWII weepies in which an iron-jawed woman – often played by Joan Crawford or Bette Davis – endures a double-barrelled assault of hell and humiliation for 90 minutes, emerging with her dignity undented.
But those movies were aimed at earning the empathy of the women in the audience, who saw the protagonists as an idealized version of themselves. Crawford and her sisters suffered for the housewives of America, their travails and eventual triumphs making their fans feel better about their own unsung sacrifices.
Precious is more of an emotional safari, an invitation to the audience (mostly, I suspect, comfortably middle- and upper-middle-class white folks) to experience the self-flattering thrill of sympathizing with an exotic Other from the comfort of their padded seats. Precious’ troubles are piled on so relentlessly that the movie starts to feel like a parody of itself. Around the time I learned that, on top of everything else, her father had given her HIV, I half expected to see one of the Wayans brothers pop up in drag to whale on her with a rolling pin.
Sidibe, who has never acted in a movie before, is getting a lot of praise for her performance. She deserves it. She tells us how shut down Precious is by showing us nothing but her impassive face, determined gait, and tendency to turn on her tormentors and whomp them until they leave her alone. Precious doesn’t always act sympathetically – she’s mean to a young neighbor who just wants to be her friend – but Sidibe always has our sympathy, letting us see the pain behind the bad behavior. She also shows us glimpses of a deeply buried sense of play.
But the actress is limited by her script. The running voiceover, presumably taken from the journal Precious writes for Miss Rain’s class, gives us some insight into her thoughts, but they’re pretty crude – mostly, she just describes things we’ve already seen or voices the naïve fantasies that keep her hope alive. Precious morphs from an illiterate to an apparently gifted writer in Miss Rain’s class, winning a literary award along the way, which presumably means she also learned to think. That sounds like a thrilling journey. Too bad we never feel her mind expanding.
The movie’s also tainted by an air of self-righteousness. The novel’s author, Sapphire, wrote it after a stint as a teacher in Harlem. The beautiful, sensitive, just tough-enough Miss Rain, who always knows just what to do or say, is all but sanctified here, a good guy with a capital G.
So see Precious if it sounds appealing, but don’t go because you think you should. In spite of Oprah’s seal of approval, there’s no enlightenment to be found in this relentless parade of pain.