I went to see Precious on opening weekend. Word was, Precious takes its cues from this book that makes Oz and The Wire look like spin-offs of The Magic Garden. I’ve never read Push, the book by poet Sapphire that the film is based but I was already nervous, anxious, horrified and so excited about the premise and promise of this flick. You see I believe a lil’ shock therapy is necessary to keep us emotionally in tune with all of our future and past selves. Balanced.
So I sat there for almost two hours– laughing, crying, wincing and finally exhaling. This movie, like its protagonist, and much like the actress who brings her to life—Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, is fat, Black and all that! I loved Precious! I loved where it took me (deep and low) and how it exposed and crushed me feel while I just sat, hand in popcorn. At times I found myself being quite nostalgic. I’m a native New Yorker who was around the same age in 1987, the year this movie takes place, as Claireece Precious Jones– the lead character. I was living in the Bronx, but would hangout in Harlem some weekends– at The Mart, on 125th bartering with the African street vendors and yeah, like Precious, I even ate fried chicken at M&G’s.
The scenes with Precious at home left me shook. Make no ham bones about it, the physical and sexual abuse that Precious endures is cruel, cold and beyond sadistic. When I was 10 I knew a Precious Jones except her name was Danielle and she lived near White Plains Rd. Truth is there’s some Precious flowing in the veins of my own life history. I was beat-up damn near every week in elementary school and during summer breaks, the girl next door, kept the beat-down fresh. I was called a big-lipped baboon; a tall goofy doofus; ugly. I was chased home by a boy wielding a big leather belt trying (and sometimes succeeding) to lash and whip me. But unlike Precious, when I got home, there was love and support from both my mother and father. There was a home cooked meal waiting for me on the stove. There was peace and calm in my home. So I could relate, but then I really couldn’t.
Although most of the reviews have been positive, there’s also been mad drama too. Juan Williams (WSJ) considers Push to be gangster lit—“poorly written (and) poorly edited.” If Push is gangster lit then so is The Bluest Eye. Armond White (NY Press) really goes off the deep-end in his review calling “Precious” an “orgy of prurience” that demeans Blacks just as much as Birth of Nation. And wait, there’s more. In a fit of looney-tunesque insanity Mr. White names some “excellent recent films with black themes” that have been ignored while Precious with its “ethnic stereotyping” gets all the hype. His idea of “excellent” is “Norbit” and “Little Man.” Instead of seriously engaging with Gabby’s portrayal of Precious he declares, “she’s so obese her face seems bloated into a permanent pout.” And later calls her “hippopotamus-like.” Yeah for Armond, a Black man, the more realistic depiction of the life of an obese Black woman is one wearing a fat suit and decidedly male.
Other writers, along with White, think the fantasy scenes are sentimental manure promoting “materialist fantasy” as motivation. Others see Precious’ desire to be white and have a light-skinned boyfriend as self-hatred. Folks, this movie is shot in the 80’s from a teen’s POV when Madonna, The Material Girl ruled the airwaves and MTV, and when the Huxtables with their Black artwork and brownstone bourgie bravada was boss. And every girl I knew including my sister and I, was deep in puppy love with Al B! Sure, Prince and Christopher Williams. The light skinned boys got all the love back then! But certainly this did not mean we hated our darker skinned selves. We were products of our environments where high yella negroes were glamorously featured in everything from Elle to Soul Train to the movie Flashdance. Precious doesn’t hate herself. Did you notice how she always rocked a beaded necklace that would match her shirt, which would match her eye shadow? Her bangs were tight everyday! She took pride in making herself up. I’m reminded of The Notorious B.I.G.’s rap, “Hearthrob neva/ black, ugly as ever,” Precious Jones knew she wasn’t pretty. But please recognize she definitely didn’t hate herself either. Precious like Biggie had heart.
This Call-to-Arms for context is also one argument that I don’t get. Why do I need a history of why Mary Jones, Precious’ mother, is on welfare and why she is constantly trying to bamboozle the system? Why must Lee Daniels, the film’s Director include a historical back story on slavery and racism to explain why she allows her man to rape her daughter? Clearly there is a lack of love. And more importantly, viewers like me watching the movie are smarter than a first grader. We come to the table with experience and information. It’s deep to me that Black visual artists like Basquiat and Kara Walker can leave things open for interpretation– trusting the power of imagination and inference, but Lee Daniels another type of visual artist has to include a key for understanding discrimination and capitalism. Our imagination, education and creativity as Black viewers and as Black producers of content are constantly underestimated and undersiege from within the community especially when we are asked to breakdown the historical relevance and meaning of every gesture and every shot of pigs feet.
There is a popular criticism though that I do believe is fair and that is with the movie’s casting. Why are all the supportive, kind-hearted, loving characters– Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Paula Patton– light skinned or white when Precious, her demon of a mother and her nasty disgusting cold-hearted father are all dark-skinned? It does create this subconscious battle of the Wannabees and Jiggaboos, Evilene vs. Lena Horne, good vs. evil. This could have been better handled, but it does not make me hate the entire movie.
At the end of the day I think Precious is shocking, tragic but with hopeful promise. It interrogates us and forces us to really look hard at even our most disgusting selves and engage. Eyes open or eyes closed it’s there and it will not cease to exist.
Please check out my thoughts on Precious from WBAI radio’s Wake Up Call.