A movie about a 350-pound African-American girl physically abused by her mother and sexually abused by her father seems like a long shot to win over audiences. In an environment where daily stress causes people to seek out escapist entertainment like Avatar or feel good movies like The Blind Side, why would anyone choose to see this film?
Now that Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire has won awards in the U.S. and Europe, many moviegoers are taking a second look. The ultimate compliment, of course, is being nominated for an Academy Award and two of the film’s actresses, Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique, have received that honor. (Mo’Nique would go on to win.) The film’s director, Lee Daniels, also nominated for an Oscar, is the one who fought to have this film made—from the beginning when he convinced the author, Sapphire, to sign over rights to her work, through the Sundance Festival where he finally won over Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey for help with promotion.
In 1987, Claireece Precious Jones (Sidibe) is sixteen and lives in Harlem with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). When we first meet Precious, as she prefers to be called, she’s in English class barely keeping up with the work yet captivated by her teacher. (She fantasizes that he will whisk her off to live with him in Westchester). Her time in school, however, is cut short. Called to the principal’s office, she’s suspended because she’s pregnant, the second time she has had to leave school to have a baby.
On her way home, she’s a target for the abuse that often greets obese people in our society. She counters, as she often does, with physical violence. So far, Precious has done little to win over our sympathies. All of that changes when she arrives home and we witness what her day-to-day existence is like. Her mother lives to watch TV, smoke, collect welfare checks, and have her daughter wait on her, all while delivering one hurtful blow after another—both verbal and physical—upon Precious. We learn through flashbacks that Precious was twice impregnated by her father, her mother watching but doing nothing to stop the abuse. Rather than condemn her husband, she accuses Precious of stealing him and leaving her alone.
Precious’ first child, called simply Mongo, because she’s “Mongoloid,” lives with Mary’s mother, Precious’ grandmother. Whenever a social worker plans a visit, the grandmother brings over Mongo so that Mary can continue to collect welfare checks. (Mo’Nique is superb in this scene where she transforms herself with lipstick and a wig into a caring grandmother and then morphs back into an abusive mother when the social worker leaves).
The principal arranges for Precious to attend an alternative school. In a classroom filled with other students who have somehow gone off track, Precious begins to find herself, owing in large part to a dedicated teacher, Blu Rain (Paula Patton), who senses Precious’ potential and encourages her to write. After the birth of a second child, a boy named Abdul, Precious returns home but afraid for her baby’s safety finally flees. She finds temporary housing with Rain and her partner (she is curious about her teacher’s lesbian relationship) eventually moving into a half-way house while continuing her studies.
Precious’ problems are far from over. She learns that she is HIV positive, infected by her father who has died from the disease. She is determined to make it on her own, looking towards completing high school and going on to college.
From time to time, Precious meets with her social worker, Miss Weiss (an unrecognizable Mariah Carey). When Precious’ mother meets with her daughter and social worker, vowing to change if her family will come back to live with her, Weiss finally extracts the details of Precious’ sexual abuse and why Mary allowed it to happen.
This is Sidibe’s first role and she is, quite simply, a natural. She is so believable as Precious that we often feel we are watching the real Precious suffer the indignities of life. Carey is far from her diva self here. Members of our party who hadn’t read about the movie failed to identify Carey as the social worker. (She even sports a hairy upper lip). Lenny Kravitz has a small but memorable role as a male nurse, while Sherri Shepherd (does she manage to find the best jobs ever?) steps away from her View persona to play the wise-cracking receptionist at Precious’ school.
Some reviewers have criticized the movie for its unfavorable portrayal of black American life. Yet, these characters could have been white, Hispanic, or any race without affecting the story. The sad fact is that too many children in our society, no matter their race or, in fact, social status, suffer abuse and often have no where or no one to turn to for help. Hopefully, this film will raise awareness of the problem and serve as a call to action for those of us who can become part of the solution.