Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Precious locates the heart — and hell — of its heroine's struggle 

Wednesday, Nov 11 2009
Comments

In her broad outlines, Claireece Precious Jones risks sounding like the epitome of ghetto cliché: an obese, illiterate 16-year-old; mother to a four-year-old Down syndrome daughter and now pregnant again; physically and psychologically abused by her mother; repeatedly raped by her father, who is also the father of her own two children. Precious — as she prefers to be called — is the central figure in the poet Sapphire's bestselling 1996 novel Push, an homage of sorts to The Color Purple (which it directly references and also mirrors in its diaristic style) set in the pregentrification Harlem of the mid-1980s. And it's a testament to Sapphire's affecting prose (written in Precious' own words and dialect) that her protagonist emerges as something more than a mere statistic or representative — that we understand how Precious' story is, for all its commonalities with other abused black women, uniquely her own.

Director Lee Daniels' film adaptation (which has been retitled Precious since its Sundance premiere, and also acquired two high-profile "presenters" in Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey) is a somewhat blunter, but nevertheless effective object. Working from screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher's faithful adaptation, Daniels cultivates an aesthetic that is often more grotesque than artful, sometimes artfully grotesque (like a Courbet painting), and rarely delivered with less than a sledgehammer thwack. Bleak though it was on the page, the apartment shared by Precious (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) and her layabout welfare mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), here appears like a Lenox Avenue Grey Gardens, with a television perpetually tuned to The $100,000 Pyramid and curtains that don't seem to have parted since whatever decade Mary last left the premises. When Daniels flashes back to Precious' horrifying rapes, the wide-angle close-ups of her father's heaving body and of fried chicken sizzling on the stove feel like outtakes from one of Rudy Ray Moore's outré blaxploitation farces (or from Daniels' own risible, little-seen debut feature, Shadowboxer, featuring Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Oedipal hired assassins). And when Precious enrolls at the alternative school where a teacher improbably named Blu Rain (Paula Patton) inspires her to stand and deliver, the classrooms are wreathed in ethereal light.

Hothouse melodrama one moment, kitchen-sink (and frying-pan-to-the-head) realism the next, with eruptions of incongruous slapstick throughout, this may be Daniels' stab at finding a cinematic analogue for the novel's inventive, naïf-art language — a film style, like Precious' writing style, seemingly being made up as it goes along. Yet even when the movie is at its most divergent, Precious still packs a wallop. What Daniels lacks as a craftsman, he makes up for in his willingness to put the lives of abused and defeated black women on the screen with brute-force candor and a lack of sentimentality. Where Push the novel echoed The Color Purple the novel, Precious the movie operates as something of a corrective to Steven Spielberg's 1985 film, with its narrative sanitizing and artery-clogging Quincy Jones score. Its own inspirational touches notwithstanding (not for nothing did it cop the audience awards at Sundance and Toronto earlier this year), Precious is less about overcoming adversity than about survival — a battle the movie does not begin to pretend can be won in two hours of screen time. No slumdog millionaires here, Daniels' movie puts us through hell — Precious' hell — and leaves us somewhere like limbo.

A former casting director, Daniels shows undeniable savoir faire with his actors, a mix of musicians and comedians effectively cast against type, from a dark-haired, deglamorized Mariah Carey as a tough-love social worker to a subtle Lenny Kravitz as an attentive male nurse. The picture belongs, however, to the gale-force Mo'Nique, who transforms an ostensibly one-note monster mom into a complex portrait of a psychologically damaged woman (no matter that Daniels seems to have edited her most showstopping scene in a blender), and to the magnanimous Sidibe, who carries the alternately exhausting and exhilarating narrative on her formidable shoulders. For most of the movie, her stoically beautiful face stays wrought tight in a mask of sadness and self-loathing. When she relaxes those muscles ever so slightly — one of the movie's few subtle touches — it is like a weight of centuries has been lifted.

About The Author

Scott Foundas

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • 24th Annual Autumn Moon Festival
    Crowds gathered September 6-7 for the 24th Annual Autumn Moon Festival in Chinatown. Visitors enjoyed arts, crafts, cultural exhibits, food and a dog fashion show. Photographs by Dhoryan Rizo.
  • Felton: Touring the Redwoods
    Blue skies meet redwood canopies in the mountain town of Felton, located just north of Santa Cruz on Highway 9. Once a bustling logging community, the town is now a mix of mellow locals and serene wilderness. Visitors can enjoy the redwoods in nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and splash in swimming holes in the San Lorenzo River. For a bite to eat stop by Rocky’s Cafe for fruit-laden pancakes, barbeque at the Cowboy Bar & Grill and poolside burgers at the Trout Farm Inn. Other stops worth checking out include Roaring Camp Railroads, the Mount Hermon zip line tour, and the educational Bigfoot Discovery Museum. For beer or cocktails a log cabin bar has you covered.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed