When it comes to Hollywood and representation of African-American women, I propose that the present decade might be viewed as beginning with Monster’s Ball (2001) and ending with Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire (2009). The two films have much in common. First, there is Lee Daniels, the producer who, for years, fought tirelessly to bring Monster’s Ball to the screen. Daniels is director of Precious. Then there is Lionsgate, theatrical distributor for both films in the U.S.
But Monster’s Ball and Precious have more in common than just Daniels and Lionsgate. Significantly, both films feature poor, black women at the center of a tale that employs “deviant” black sexuality as a theme. Monster’s Ball, of course, gave us Halle Berry as the hypersexual Leticia Musgrove, a working class widow who seduces a white racist prison guard. Precious gives us an overweight teenager, Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), and her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). Mary and her husband have been molesting Precious since infancy. As the film’s title indicates, Precious is based on Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push.
In the film, the depiction of Precious’ molestation by her father is sufficiently graphic, though fleeting, and the abuser remains anonymous. Onscreen we never actually see the father’s entire face, and offscreen there is no mention of him in the credits. Perhaps, in not identifying the man, filmmakers were trying to avoid the kind of attention that The Color Purple (1985) received for its portrayal of black men. The casting of a man, Lenny Kravitz, as the delivery room nurse who cares for Precious after she gives birth—and who in the novel is gendered as a woman—should further serve to allay any potential criticism regarding black men.
Black women, however, do not fare as well. Though only hinted at in the film, Mary’s sexual abuse of Precious is quite vivid in the book. Nonetheless, Mary does spend a considerable amount of time onscreen terrorizing Precious with relentless beatings and verbal attacks. Mary clearly wears the face of evil in this film.
Another factor that ties Monster’s Ball and Precious together is critical acclaim. Halle Berry made history when she became the first African-American woman to win the Leading Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball. Precious is the only film ever to receive the Audience awards at both Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival. Last year, when Slumdog Millionaire—another film about impoverished non-white people—won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, it went on to win a slew of Oscars, including “Best Motion Picture of the Year.”
Audiences, that is to say, predominantly white audiences, love this film. With a cast that includes Mo’Nique, Kravitz, Mariah Carey, and Sherri Shepherd, and executive producers, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey on board to sing the film’s praises, black audiences are going to love Precious, too.
Bolstering the film’s chances as a serious Oscar contender are credible dramatic performances by the film’s cast. Though the nomination process has not officially begun, in public appearances, Sidibe has already been asked how she would respond to winning the Academy Award.
Technical elements are commendable, as well. A drab mise-en-scene and actors deprived of hairdos and makeup imbue the film with a sense of realism. Combined with its voice-over narration, at times, Precious feels like a documentary. At other times, clever fantasy sequences that break away from the realism have more of a slick Hollywood feel. For both Precious and the audience, these fantasies provide much needed escape from the hell that is Precious’ life. More importantly, perhaps, these fantasies allow audiences to derive pleasure from seeing Precious as a glamorous model or an attractive singer in the choir, as someone other than who she really is.
For the screen, Precious has been transformed from an excessively harsh, highly sexualized young woman who is difficult to care about—at least in the beginning—into a rather innocent and likable character that audiences can root for right away.
The screenplay also modifies Push’s crude delivery. With illiterate prose, Sapphire tried to update Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to 1980s Harlem. Though it never happens in the film, in the book, Precious actually reads The Color Purple. In an Associated Press interview, Winfrey, who played Sofia in the movie The Color Purple says that, “Precious feels like a Celie who lives in Harlem”. Though there are similarities, Push is no Color Purple. Its vernacular lacks the lyricism and poetry of Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and produces a style that is more gimmick than genius.
What Push does attempt to do—unlike the Precious screenplay, which panders to a “mainstream” audience—is to position Precious as a political subject. In the novel, for example, Precious often paraphrases Louis Farakhan. In the film, Precious never mentions the Nation of Islam leader. Push also implies that there is a connection between America’s history of white supremacy and the pathological blackness that oppresses Precious. The film, on the other hand, divorces Precious and Mary from any history, recent or past, that might have contributed to the abominable social circumstances in which they find themselves.
In much the same way, in Monster’s Ball, and against all evidence to the contrary—a Southern setting, an execution (“lynching”) of a black man, a family of racist white men, and a sexually aggressive black woman—many audiences and critics refused to see Leticia as an historical subject. The dominant reading of the film is not that it reinscribes racial ideology and long-held beliefs about black women’s sexuality. But rather, the preferred interpretation is that interracial “love” can transcend generations of racism.
That Precious has survived, and has the will to move forward is certainly a testament to the human spirit. Not only has she been physically, psychologically, and sexually abused by both parents; she is overweight, semi-illiterate, and she’s on welfare. She also has two babies by her father, one with Down’s syndrome. To top it off, Precious is HIV positive.
In naming the film’s website address, “we are all precious”, marketing executives tell us that Precious can stand in for anyone who has ever had a problem and not given up. In this “post-racial” era, a character like Precious need not represent just the poor, the downtrodden, or the historically oppressed black woman. And since we are all precious, there is no need to question why, in one of the richest nations on earth, any child would have to grow up this way.
Despite how high the odds are stacked against Claireece Precious Jones, the message of Precious, we are instructed, is one of inspiration and hope. The only hope I am left with is that the Academy, which rarely honors African Americans, won’t offer yet another award to a film or individual actors at the expense of sanctioning racial ideology about black women.