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.
“Every day I tell myself, something gon’ happen,” she muses to herself. “I’m going to break through, or someone’s going to break through to me … someday.”
This is a film about metaphysical need, DNA-deep, adolescent-sized, existential longing and the power of popular culture to—temporarily—transform unspeakable realities into BET fantasies. (This is BET circa 1987, folks, glamorous and glitzy, years before the era of booty-shaking video vixens.)
“I want to be on the cover of a magazine,” Precious says in a voiceover. “I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with real nice hair. But first, I wanna be in one of them BET videos.”
Precious escapes the depravity of her world through vivid flights of fancy: In the midst of a rape, the ceiling above her melts and morphs into the aforementioned video music shoot, where she is the star, posing and preening. Pictures in photo albums talk to her, cooing reassuringly; Precious and her mother replace the characters in an old Sophia Loren movie—speaking in Italian. She looks in the mirror and sees a pretty white girl with long blonde hair. In this other universe, all is well, and Precious is wanted, loved, cherished.
Daniels (Monster’s Ball, Shadowboxer) films the action through a gauzy, sepia-toned haze, as if looking back on the past, telling her story through flashbacks, daydreams and voiceovers read from Precious’ diary. The effect is arresting, but without the powerhouse performances of his actors, it could easily be an empty exercise in filmmaking pyrotechnics. But Daniels has a real talent for pulling performances-of-a-lifetime out of his actors. As a producer, he cast Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, winning her an Oscar. He grabs the unlikely—Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Mo’Nique—and encourages them to subsume their personas in service to the character. They’re all unrecognizable in their roles, and not because Carey decided to forgo the lipstick. They make you believe. Mo’Nique, in particular, is a revelation: She’s all snears and sullen putdowns, greedy, grasping, nasty. But in the comedian’s hands, we recognize the humanity in the monster, without wanting to forgive her of her trespasses.
A word about all that hype: Oprah, who serves as executive producer along with Tyler Perry, has pushed the film hard, and she is to be commended for throwing her weight behind a little film. It deserves every bit of attention that it gets. But there’s something discomfiting about her declarations that “We are all Precious.” In short, she Oprah-fies Precious, rendering Precious’ fierce individuality the stuff of platitudes and Stuart Smalley moments on SNL.
No, we are not all Precious. We all get our power from the individuality of our stories. Precious stands alone.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.