Lee Daniels’ Precious and the Blame Game

The film Precious examines sexual abuse in the black community. But this time it's pointing the finger at women.


So I saw a screening of Precious this weekend.  The New York Film Festival centerpieced Lee Daniels’ much-anticipated, controversial film of an obese teen and the abuse she endures.  I don’t want to brag, but I will anyway:  I stood in the $10 Rush Ticket line and walked away with two free $40 tickets.  A brother was sitting front and center.  Now I’m going to be real with you:  the reviews from the Hollywood Reporter and Variety were right.  There’s no stone left unturned in Precious.  Incest, rape, child endangerment, AIDS, the adoration of the fair-skinned, lesbianism, deep self-hatred, illiteracy, excruciating emotional and verbal abuse, it’s all explored in the 109 minute film.

Now I’m known for my ability to sit through the most extreme of films.  I saw the 2007 psychological horror flick Funny Games and barely cringed, but Precious—an urban tale about a soul unloved—made it hard.  With that said, there was also something magical about the film.  Lee Daniels was able to thread in enough fantasy and humor to balance the real-life ugly and keep me from fleeing from the theater.  However, blogger Tambay over at Shadow and Act doesn’t quite feel the same.  Tambay wanted more gut and grit from the film and less afterschool special:

“I expected much more. A film of this nature, and the subject matter it covers, should feel more like a punch in the gut. I wanted to be overwhelmed, and be really consumed with the characters and the story. However, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for, and needed, in order to really like the film; instead, it felt rather watered-down, and simplified; in fact, if it weren’t for the rich performance Mo’Nique gives, and of course the profanity, this could easily be an after-school special.”

Tambay certainly makes an interesting point, but I wonder if a “punch in the gut” would be too much.  Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn was one of those “punch in the gut” urban films where mothers cringed in corners and fathers drank in excess.  It was relentless and depressing.  At least in Precious, the title character flashes to fantasy whenever abuse encroaches.  For example, her mother hits her with a flying plate and Precious is transported to a glittering red carpet event.  I just don’t think a modern audience (black or white) wants to sit through 104 minutes of relentless abuse and incest.   Folks have a hard enough time in their personal lives.  Tambay also had a few things to say about the saving graces in the film all being fair-skinned, but I’m going to leave that alone for now.

But I’ll tell you what:  Mo’Nique scrubbed off her usual rambunctious cattiness (a la Betty in Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) and went bare bones.  Her performance as Precious’ mother was both honest and difficult to watch.  The woman throws a TV at her daughter and grandchild.  However, the real-deal magic comes from the 26-year-old Brooklyn-born Gabourey Sidibe.  Her performance conveys so much intelligence, steadiness and vulnerability that I didn’t want to provide the standard sentimental hug; I just wanted to give her a thumbs up for her endurance.

It’s no secret that Precious feels much like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.  You know, unloved and “unattractive” black girl knocked up twice by daddy.  In fact, Sapphire, the author of Push, which the film is based upon, said she was inspired by both The Color Purple and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.  And with stories of incest in the black community, there’s always the vilified man.  (Although Roman Polanski and MacKenzie Phillips’s father have garnered support.  Interesting.)  Anyway, except for Lenny Kravitz’s character, every other black man in the film Precious is absurdly abusive.  But I will say this:  the real person accountable for the crazy in the film is Precious’ mother.  She’s demonized until the very end—a rare feat for stories of black women and abuse.  Is this progress?

I liked the film Precious.  Except for a few manipulative scenes of excess crying and make-you-feel soundtrack, I thought the film posed a very interesting question to its audience:  If Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and now Sapphire, is examining incest in the black community, well, isn’t it time we really turn over that stone?