by Wanda Sabir
Love has everything to do with it, and “Precious” shows us that where there is love, there is no intent to harm or cause pain. Precious’ life was the antithesis of love; how many children and adults confuse pain for love until they learn better?
Based on Sapphire’s novel “Push,” Lee Daniels’ film, “Precious,” opened in Bay Area theatres Nov. 6. At a community screening Thursday, Oct. 29, emotions raced as patrons tried to reconcile them with their intellect swiftly in order to respond to questions concerning this child, Claireece Precious Jones, portrayed well by newcomer to the screen, actress Gabourey Sidibe.
What was really amazing about the film was how well the creative team – key among them writer Geoffrey Fletcher and director of photography Andrew Dunn, BSC, with executive producers Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Lisa Cortés and Tom Heller – were able to tell this story in a way that made one member of the audience in a discussion following the film remark: “I think society failed the mother too.” Mo’Nique as “Precious’ mother, Mary, was cast in a role which was not only not funny; it was absolutely despicable. The actress never broke character. If anything, she grew worse, yet she portrayed Mary in such a way that one does feel sorry for her even as one roots for Precious to stay away from her.
“Precious,” besides being a film about the brutality of enslavement visited on many children in inner-city homes and the power of love to heal the most terminal of pain, is also about the power of forgiveness and how the first step in the healing is facing the fire and entering it with one’s eyes open – Sankofa.
The emotions running through the theatre Thursday evening ranged from disgust to disbelief – how bad can it get for this 16-year-old child, pregnant with her second child by her father? Answer: a lot worse. The physical, emotional and psychological violence visited on this “precious child,” who lived in a dream state – reality a bit too much to handle – was unbelievably vicious. Yet, Precious was not the only child neglected in her community. The film shows other children facing similar pain. Another little girl, younger than Precious, is not sent to school regularly, nor is her hair combed. Later on in the film we see her with two black eyes.
Both mothers, Precious’ and her neighbor’s mother, seem to keep the children around for the welfare checks. Precious’ mother tells her daughter repeatedly to drop out of school and go down to welfare and get a check. And the welfare department wants her to stop going to school once she has her GED and get a job, even if the job averages $2 an hour. Though set in Harlem in 1987, the literal distance is shortened when one thinks about No Child Left Behind and all the children like Precious who can’t seem to keep up.
At the alternative school, Precious’ life changes for the better. One teacher, Ms. Blue Rain, actress Paula Patton, opens up the world to her students through literacy – reading and writing. She has her students tell their stories – to write, even when life is most painful, to write through the pain – and it is this action that Precious learns to value herself and lift her voice.
Precious is a familiar character in Black literary history – characters like Celie in “The Color Purple,” Pecola in “The Bluest Eye” and Antoine in “Antoine Fisher” reflect a legacy closely tied to the antebellum baggage Black people carry as they race to freedom without a notion of how one evades the slave catchers who lie in wait.
Opal Palmer Adisa says in one of her poems, “I Name Me Name,” each of us has the power to decide what we will respond to, a choice which in Precious’ case involves renaming herself – claiming her life. When she is encouraged to put her second child, a son, up for adoption, she chooses to keep him. It is a choice that saves her life. Now that she has her son to live for, she makes other choices she was afraid to consider in the past.
“Precious” is filled with close tight shots, indicative of the stylistic choices Lee Daniels makes in his films, which are character driven – whether that is actor Cuba Goodling as a hired assassin in “Shadow Boxing” or Halle Berry as lover of the man who killed her husband in “Monster’s Ball” or even the pedophile in “The Woodsman” – and one wonders how does Lee Daniels make his audience care about a pedophile or a murderer or a child molester or a brute, which Precious’ mother, Mary, is? Daniels humanizes these people and makes us watch. I say makes, because I am not a willing participant in this group therapy session; nonetheless I stay. Why is that? Why do I care what happens to Mary? I am also curious about Mary’s back story, which Sapphire doesn’t go into either in the novel. Why is Mary’s mother afraid of her? What happened to her to make her so mean?
Precious doesn’t say much. In abusive households one wishes for invisibility – there is safety in silence and space – so what Daniels does is let the audience into his character’s head. We see her thoughts, which are tangible – colorful, sometimes scary, but often funny. It is in these moments that the costume designer, Marina Draghici, shines, as Sidibi shows a sophistication in her role the sullen, sober Precious seems incapable of.
Though striking, it is here that the hope lies – even when being raped or forced to eat when not hungry. It is these journeys Precious invites us along on which make the film even slightly bearable. Lee Daniels makes his audience do the hard work which begins after the film is over … for the rest of our lives. His Precious extracts a commitment without having us sign on any dotted lines.
Precious makes friends in her new school, meets a man, Nurse John, actor Lenny Kravitz, who respects his little friend and treats her well. In this way, Precious learns that not all Black men treat Black girls badly. There is magic in Precious, the child, and I think it’s magic that keeps Precious moving forward and getting up from the sordid bed her mother has assigned her and life’s circumstances keep her tied to.
But, as with all things in life, there comes a time when she is able to cut the cord and move on. Somewhat like the animals who stay cowered until they realize that the cage is in their minds and that they are actually stronger than their perceived masters, Precious realizes this also over time and makes her escape.
If nothing else, Precious knows the truth; she knows it and at some point she stops covering up her mother’s falsehoods to those who intrude into their lives, invited and uninvited. It’s hard to live in a city on public assistance, your kid in public school and remain anonymous. So, despite the consequences – which as already stated are brutal – Precious tells. She tells about her mother, Mary, who stays at home all day and watches television, masturbates and eats. She tells on her father, who rapes her again and again. She tells about Mongo, short for Mongoloid, her daughter, who lives with Precious’ grandmother.
The mother hardly ever leaves the house; it’s just her and the cats. Precious cooks and shops. Mary is stuck in the apartment with the shades drawn, but Precious is not.
That education can save someone’s life is not a cliché. It’s not just the knowledge, but the teacher who takes an interest in a child and goes that extra step, like the principal who visited Precious’ home and told her via the intercom – Precious’ mom refused to let the principal come up to the apartment – about the alternative school, Each One Teach One. It doesn’t take a lot, and just one moment can change the direction of a child’s life in ways one can’t even imagine.
Why is the dredlocked teacher in “Push” exchanged for a light-complexioned lesbian in Precious? The teacher in the novel is a Black woman Precious can identify with; she is the color of Precious, who up to that point sees herself as black and monstrous. Daniels’ “Precious” reminds me of Marguerite in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” who wants a light-complexioned boyfriend, so that she can have a pretty son – pretty meaning not dark skinned and nappy haired like his mother. There are no heroines or heroes who look like Precious in the film, but Sidibe plays it off looking fly in her stylist fashion statements: hair always together, clothes and jewelry reflecting a certain confidence visibly absent elsewhere.
Set in an America where precious children living in certain zip codes don’t receive the kind of guidance or attract the kind of concern reserved for children in other zip codes and economic price brackets, “Precious,” the film, is a wake-up call for those of us in positions where we touch the lives of vulnerable populations to pay closer attention, to listen to their stories, to not ignore the signs.
This is not a film for little children, 13 and younger – language, violence, sex – nor is it a film one wants to see alone; however, it is certainly a film one does not want to miss. “Precious” is a Middle Passage tale; it is a Maafa Commemoration because the child lives to tell the tale and one has hopes for a continued healing, but there are so many more on board the ship about to get tossed into the cold water. It for these children and their parents that we must watch and figure out how to get life jackets on them and bring them to shore where we can pump soup into their stomachs and love into their hearts.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com for an expanded version of Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m. and archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network.