Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

If you’ve missed the phenomenon that is Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, you’ve been living in a media vacuum for the past six months. Precious has fixed its place as one of the most important films of 2009 due in large part to performances by leads Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique.

Precious is now available on DVD and includes interviews with Sapphire, director Lee Daniels and executive producers Oprah and Tyler Perry. The book and the film are based on the experiences of African American poet and novelist Sapphire when she worked as a teacher in Harlem during the ’80s. Sapphire asserts that Precious is not about specific student, but rather an amalgam of many young women.

Claireece Precious Jones (Sidibe) is 16-years-old, illiterate, pregnant by her father for the second time and expelled from junior high. She lives with her abusive (emotionally, sexually, and physically) mother Mary (Mo’Nique). Precious is also obese, and late in the film learns that she’s HIV positive. After Precious is removed from school she starts studying at an alternative program called Each One Teach One. Here, she meets the encouraging and dedicated teacher Ms. Blue Rain, and a cohort of other tough-talking low-income girls.

Precious is neither a rags to riches story nor is it a relentlessly bleak portrait of a miserable life. Thanks in large part to Sidibe, Precious herself is as funny and charming as she is angry and depressed. The film is shot vérité style on digital cameras lending gritty realism to Mary’s filthy apartment, the fluorescent-lit welfare office, and grim streets. These scenes are juxtaposed with Precious’ fantasy world where she escapes when reality gets to be too much—like when she’s being raped by her father or beaten by her mother. In Precious’ fantasies, she’s a celebrity—well dressed, fawned upon, posing in the glare of flashbulbs. She’s bubbly, she giggles, and she’s cute — not too far off in fact, from the real Gabourey Sidibe.

The fantasies help achieve the film’s main agenda: Precious is not someone to ignore. She’s just like the rest of us who occasionally cope with our lives by pretending we are otherwise—giving earnest Oscar acceptance speeches to the bathroom mirror or daydreaming about hot dudes on red motorcycles Though she lives in darkness, Precious is hopeful. In voiceover narration she talks about wanting to be a good mother to her children, her desire to succeed academically, and her conviction to break away from Mary.

Daniels wants viewers to like Precious, but not to pity her, and he emphasizes this by presenting Precious as a regular girl who happens to inhabit horrific circumstances. Any lesser performance than Sidibe’s would have made this self-identification seem cloying or forced, but Precious isn’t either of those things. s a character, she’s heartbreaking and wonderful.

No less affecting is Mo’Nique in her portrayal of a monster, Precious’ abusive and tragic mother. Mo’Nique has received due praise for her performance (hello, Oscar) and I add my voice to the many who have sung her praises. Oprah has called Mo’Nique “fearless” in her performance, and this is apt. Playing evil is not easy, playing evil believably is harder still, and Mo’Nique’s Mary is spot on: chilling, pitiable and reviled all at once.

Lee Daniels and executive producers Oprah and Tyler Perry clearly see the film as a vehicle for social change. As Oprah puts it in one special features interview, she said to Daniels “Tell me what I can do. I am a busy woman. I certainly don’t go looking for things to do… But in this case, I felt differently.” Tyler Perry is interviewed about bringing his substantial African American fan base to the film, and his reservations about doing so because of the film’s content and profanity.

Viewers of Precious seem to fall roughly into two camps: those who subscribe to Oprah’s version of the story as an empowering message for the disenfranchised particularly those who are poor, female and black. Critics of the film contend that it portrays urban blacks as obese, abusive and uneducated stereotypes. They argue that the film makes generalizations about African Americans that may be taken at face value by whites and blacks alike. This op-ed (Felicia R. Lee, New York Times 20 November 2009) speaks to the debate about black representation in the media and the advent of Precious.

It’s true that Precious isn’t always nuanced. Her relationship with her teacher, Ms. Rain, at times comes across as over-simplified and caricatured. Ms. Rain is an archetypal ray of patient, literate light in Precious’ life—and it’s not irrelevant that she’s quite beautiful and light-skinned. Mariah Carey (in an attempt to apologize to the world for Glitter) does a better job of portraying how complicated it is to help Precious in her much smaller role as a social worker at the welfare office.

Perhaps these broad strokes are part of the point. The message of Precious is intended to be a populist one; Oprah in particular makes her intentions in her distribution and support of the film very clear. If Precious is sometimes obvious in order to convey its message, this is entirely intentional. Precious’ inner strength and adherence to hope are the center of the film’s agenda—Sapphire, Daniels, Oprah et al want us to read it this way. Precious’ ultimate belief in hope itself is more important to the film than avoiding clichés, which might be impossible to circumvent regardless.

Precious is a well-told story that provokes difficult questions about portrayal of race and class in the media. The cultural conversation is richer for its inclusion.

The special features portion of the disc includes interviews with Sapphire, Lee Daniels, Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton (who plays Ms. Rain) Mariah Carey, Tyler Perry and Oprah. The interviews (heavy on Daniels and Sapphire) provide further context and depth about the representation of blacks in the media, and are worth watching. There’s a section about the arduous process of finding the right actress for the role of Precious, and a commentary with Daniels.

RATING 7 / 10