Oprah Is Wrong About ‘Precious'

But you still need to go see Lee Daniels’ brilliant, powerful new film about a Harlem black girl in trouble.

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wiltzprecious
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Inner-city girl, inner-city school, talented teacher. You may think you’ve seen this story before. You may think you’ve heard this story before. You haven’t. As Toni Morrison once noted, she wrote the The Bluest Eye to give voice to the interior lives of black girls. The eponymous subject of Precious: Based On the Novel by Sapphire is so outside the margins, to many folks, she doesn’t register as human: She’s fat, female and black, and for many, she doesn’t exist, except as an object of pity or scorn. And the genius of this movie is that it makes you feel with her, through her.

There is hype and there is Hype, and the hoopla surrounding Precious is Hype triple-squared, exclamation point. There have been cover stories and over-the-top Oprah promos and much to-do over the makeovers and make-unders of the film’s stars. (Mariah! Mo’Nique! Lenny!) A film with this much advance pub is bound to disappoint, done under by the weight of so much expectation and promise.

And yet, it doesn’t. No amount of hype can prepare you for the visceral shock that you get from watching this film. Precious is that powerful. It’s also brutal, bitter, painful, and, at times, really hard to take. It’s got a lot of a lot: A lot of urban pathology, a lot of sadness and grief and a whole lot of rage and venom and jaw-dropping cruelty. It’s also a thing of beauty, aural, visual, spiritual, beauty found in the most unlikely of places. In director Lee Daniels’ hands, even a pot of pig’s feet simmering on the stove becomes poetry. As does the life of a morbidly obese black girl in Harlem.

As the title suggests—awkwardly—Precious is indeed based on Push, the 1996 novel by Sapphire, in which an illiterate 16-year-old (stunning newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) finds herself pregnant by her father. Again. The incestuous father is long gone, but the mother, Mary, is still around, a malevolent presence in her daughter’s life, bullying from her perch in front of the TV, spewing a constant stream of invective: “You’re a dummy. Don’t nobody want you; don’t nobody need you.” Whenever Mary (Mo’Nique) deigns to get up from the couch—which isn’t often—it is to wield a frying pan upside Precious’ head.

There isn’t much hope for Precious: When she’s not being abused by her mother, she’s being taunted by the boys on the streets. Food is her only comfort. She’s so beaten down that she can’t recognize friendship, batting it away when it is offered to her in the guise of the little neighborhood girl who’s always pestering her. Precious can’t see her, so caught up is she in her own pain. But when she’s offered a chance at attending an alternative school taught by a compassionate but demanding teacher (Paula Patton), she slowly, ever so slowly, begins to see the love that surrounds her. She allows herself to hope. And with hope, comes a chance at some sort of redemption.

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