several weeks ago i attended a matinee mid-town screening of precious, the provocative film based on the award-winning 1996 novel authored by sapphire, the artist formerly known as ramona lofton. the film tells the horrific story of precious, claireece jenkins, a dark-skinned, illiterate, obese teenager in 1987 harlem, pregnant with her second child. sapphire, who once described herself as a "recovering lesbian," was initially reluctant to see her book on the screen. she was eventually swayed to do so by the film's director, lee daniels, the now, out & proud-to be-gay-identified brotha best known for producing monster's ball, which garnered halle berry an oscar for best actress, the first african-american woman to win the award.
the buzz around this film primarily comes from the cast, as well as its executive producers, oprah winfrey & tyler perry, who came aboard at the midnight hour to secure financing challenges & hollywood name-worthy prestige. precious stars newcomer gabourey sidibe, a harlem native who beat out 400 females for the role - her first major gig. her abusive mother is played by actress/comedienne monique. other prominent actors include mariah carey as their social worker, paula patton as precious' new teacher, lenny kravitz as a nurse & sherri sheperd as an administrative assistant.
sadly enuf, the complexity of social issues presented yet never addressed in the film: emotional abuse, hiv, illiteracy, mental illness, obesity, poverty, rape, self-hatred, teenage pregnancy, violence, i.e. seems to escape the media's delusions of a post-racial america while our bi-racial president ascends to international power. ultimately, precious' deep seated problems are symptoms of internalized oppression. she lives in a dark, untidy apartment with her infant child, born with down-syndrome, as well as her mother, who sees no future beyond their welfare checks - the 'welfare queen' was a black, female stereotype tool of racist propaganda fueled in the 80's by white, male senators newt gingrich, daniel moynihan & ronald reagan; despite the fact 80 percent of women on welfare were white women.
parental neglect is normalized in the film. precious grows up with no loving black men in her life. in fact, the only time we see her absent father is when he rapes her. his face, much like his humanity, manhood & spirit, is not present. ralph ellison wrote about black, male invisibility b4 the civil rights movement jumped off: have we changed? turn on bet & decide 4 yourself. her mother can be seen in the foreground voyeuristically watching the rape & saying nothing. while precious is being raped, the director quickly inter-twines back & forth images of soul food on the stove with her father's moans, precious' screams & unrecognizable accompaniment music. how bizarre is that?
i felt like i was at ripley's believe it or not...
precious' apathetic mother, mary, was addicted to cigarettes, food & television. mary, like her daughter, is socially isolated. mary screams vulgarities at precious, damaging her non-existent sense of value & worth. mary seemed obsessed with controlling her child in one way or anotha, using food, money & terror as weapons of dehumanization. in one scene, she chastizes precious for not serving her ham hocks with collard greens; she forces precious to eat the the full plate of food in front of her, b4 making her cook dinner again.
one day, on her way to school, precious steals a bucket of chicken & runs off down 125th st. are we expected to believe a 350 pound teenager cannot be caught running with a bucket of chicken in her hand? she encounters a group of young, black males. the three guys are, of course, cutting class, rolling dice, smoking weed & listening to rap music. of course. bcuz, in harlem, that's how brothas keep it real. right? anyway, one of the guys makes a lewd comment about precious' ass. the other two laugh, oblivious to her misery & their misogyny. she tries to walk away but gets pushed to the ground instead, face first. precious' humiliation is further illustrated by a dog who eats her chicken while she lays helpless on the ground. she's both depicted & treated like an animal.
mary's repeated emotional & physical abuse - she threw the television at precious, barely missing her head, as she ran out the apartment, down several flights of stairs with her baby (!) in her hand - towards her daughter makes precious feel loveless, ugly & worthless. when mary sexual abuses precious her despair goes unspoken. at school, precious has no friends: they laugh at her & no one notices her pain. when she is home alone, she looks in the mirror & sees herself as a skinny, white girl with no problems, perhaps like marcia brady? she often visualizes her life as an adored, fashionably-attired celebrity surrounded by paparazzi, while imagining an ongoing romance with a light-skinned boyfriend.
precious' fantasies are rooted in anti-black conditioning...
none of the heroes & heroines in precious' world mirror her shade & size. why? were these casting choices intentional, or simply the status quo for a downtrodden black girl in the hood? precious' new teacher, in her 'each one teach one' class, is compassionate, kind & light-skinned. she invites precious into her cozy home, where precious meets her lesbian partner, anotha light-skinned sistah. precious' family social worker (who appeared contemptuous working with precious & her mother) is light-skinned. also, the caring nurse at the hospital has a similar hue. any wonder she seeks a life light, bright & damn near white?
lee daniels' work on other independent films include monster's ball, the story of a black woman in love with the racist white prison guard assigned to execute her husband on death row; shadowboxer, the story of an incestuous romance between two cold-blooded bounty killers: a black man & his white stepmother; & the woodsman, the story about a pedophile struggling to change his life. some critics say he pushes the envelope at all costs with characters generally untouched by mainstream film. this writer feels his cinematic choices demonstrate problematic & recurring themes of dehumanizing black images on screen.
farai chideya, the brilliant host of national public radio's news & notes said "filmmaker lee daniels seems to head right for the fire." in a june 2006 interview with national public radio's ed gordon (after his directorial debut in shadowboxer) daniels says, "certainly the offers don't come as frequently as they had been...but what they want is something that i'm not willing to give, which is a stereotype of an african-american."
daniels' father, a police officer, was killed during a robbery when he was 13. he goes on to tell gordon, "my father was also abusive physically to me because he didn't want me to become a writer & he thought that that was not a masculine thing to do & he thought that i would amount to pretty much of nothing...so i was abused & i think that it's therapeutic...my work is therapeutic...monster's ball, the woodsman & shadowboxer, because i don't go to therapy & i sort of live through my films."
why didn't gordon question daniels about his decision, consciously or not, to seek therapy in order to heal his woundedness? does gordon - who also revealed in the interview losing his father as a teenager - believe therapy is un-african-american? does therapy challenge their notions of manhood? an eerie silence pervaded this interview: two adult, successful, black men who've undoubtedly experienced feelings of grief, loss & sorrow with their fathers at a young age, yet neither one of them have developed the ability to share their hurt, pain & vulnerability.
writer ishmael reed recently wrote a scathing essay entitled, "the selling of precious: the myth of the black male sexual predator." reed is suspicious of sarah siegel, the white woman who invested five million dollars in the film; siegel's 'niche dilemma' marketing plan is currently available on you tube. reed says, "sarah siegel has joined an innovative marketing plan that couples obama's name with the most extreme of sexual crimes. this woman might have invested in a movie that some are calling the worst depiction of black life yet done."
new york press critic armond white (who shares many of reed's sentiments regarding the film) compares precious to the film, birth of a nation, directed by d.w. griffith - credited as an early film pioneer. reed says, "i would argue that this movie makes griffith look like a progressive. moreover, i've looked at a number of pictures that show how the nazis depicted blacks & though jewish & black men appear as sexual predators in many, i've never run across one in which minority men are shown as incest violators."
reed is critical of winfrey & perry's roles as executive producers. he noted a new york times article dated 2/4/09 which reported, "a deal did not emerge for push (the title of sapphire's novel) until about a week after the festival (sundance film festival) ended, with potential distributors balking over the price insisted upon by cinetic media, a new york marketing & sales company for independent film, according to two people with knowledge of how the deal came together but were not authorized to speak publicly. a spokeswoman for cinetic declined to comment, but bidders said ms. winfrey & mr. perry had been crucial to the deal coming together."
(sigh) it's 2:06 am & i've yet to finish this damn review. i'm tired of writing about precious. real talk. suffice it to say, the film provides more questions than answers. the ending of the film was confusing. frustrating. boring. precious improved her reading skills, yet this teenaged single parent walks out of school with her two kids, alone - homeless, jobless & penniless. where is she going? who will help her raise her kids? how will she learn to navigate life in harlem with her myriad of social issues?
...if the box office numbers are profitable, does anyone smell a sequel?
- mark j. tuggle
- harlem, usa
- same-gender-loving contemporary descendant of enslaved africans. community activist, feminist, health educator, independent filmmaker, mentor, playwright, poet & spiritual being. featured at, in & on africana.com, afrikan poetry theatre, angel herald, bejata dot com, bet tonight with tavis smiley, blacklight online, black noir, brooklyn moon cafe, gmhc's barbershop, klmo-fm, lgbt community services center, longmoor productions, nuyorican poets cafe, our corner, poz, pulse, rolling out new york, rush arts gallery, saint veronica's church, schomburg center for research in black culture, sexplorations, the citizen, the new york times, the soundz bar, the trenton times, the village voice, upn news, uzuri, venus, vibe, wbai-fm, wnyc-fm & wqht-fm. volunteered with adodi, bailey house, inc., black men's xchange-new york, colorofchange.org, drug policy alliance, east harlem tutorial program, imagenation film & music festival, presente.org, save darfur coalition, the enough project, the osborne association, the sledge group & your black world. worked on films with maurice jamal & heather murphy. writing student of phil bertelsen & ed bullins. firstname.lastname@example.org.