“In the beginning was not the shadow, but the act.” Ralph Ellison’s cause and effect dictum is applicable to any cinematic adaptation of a literary work: Before there was the movie, there was the book. But today—given the power of film, publicity, and celebrity—the cinematic shadow often takes precedence. The very title of Lee Daniels’s film Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire points viewers toward the original novel, but the great majority of viewers will never take the opportunity to compare film and text. They will never fully appreciate what was lost, gained, or rearranged, and they will never grasp where the narration has become dialogue or monologue. If the film is a major success, the cinematic visualization may become so dominant that the reader of the novel will lose the capacity to imagine the story. Staring at the written word, you will see the screen adaptation.
This will certainly be the case with Daniels’s visualization of the lead character of Sapphire’s novel—Claireece Precious Jones, who is portrayed (unforgettably) by Gabourey Sidibe. Harking back to the tradition of neorealist filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica (whose film Two Women is knowingly snippetted in Precious), Daniels cast an unknown with no professional acting experience. But Sidibe is more than an unfamiliar face. She mumbles, reluctantly makes eye contact, displays little expression and even less vocal dexterity. Sidibe doesn’t “portray” a character as much as embody her. Her performance isn’t an amazing piece of acting; it’s amazing for precisely giving the impression that she isn’t acting at all.
Gabourey Sidibe is surely one of the unlikeliest personages in American movie history. Call her big-boned, ample, bodacious, or plain fat, but her lead role in a major motion picture is in itself a critique of the one-dimensionality of Hollywood body images—which have become a parade of beautiful and handsome stars supposedly portraying alcoholics, drug addicts, or ordinary people. Precious is a depressed and abused sixteen years old, and Sidbe looks the part.
There she goes—in a movie poster that achieves a certain shock effect merely by brandishing Sidibie’s unfamiliar presence: sulky, head lowered, sneakers oversized. Sidibe’s physique is an image that beauty-conscious America works against. Her character seems to carry the burden of the extent to which society has belittled her. In the background of the poster hover a pair of butterfly wings, and a glorious imaginary crown tops Sidibe’s head. The earliest advertisements were captioned Life is Precious. Sentimental, yes, but a little is okay for a story that is so brutal and deadly.
Precious’s narrative adheres respectfully to Sapphire’s 1996 novel, which is set in Harlem, 1987. The illiterate Precious Jones attends overcrowded, failing public schools. She is sexually molested by her father and despised by her mother (played by comedian Mo’Nique). The movie begins with Precious realizing that she is pregnant with the second of two incestuous children, one of them cynically nicknamed “Mongo” (the child has Down syndrome). Mary Jones is a callous and indifferent mother, consumed by afternoon television and psychologically dependent upon welfare. It’s through the intervention of a concerned counselor that Precious leaves public school purgatory to begin attending the small Each One/Teach One program, where she bonds with her teacher, Ms. Blu Rain (played by an elegant Paula Patton). Rain urges Precious to enhance her opportunities by surrendering her children to adoption. Precious resists this idea, but at least succeeds in leaving her abusive domestic situation to reside in a girls’ home.
The movie has thus far been an artful tapestry of a young girls’ memories of sexual abuse, her fights at home, her vivid fantasy life (Precious fantasizes about being white and blonde or having the charmed life of a celebrity) and her burgeoning self-awareness that she is a valuable individual who has been victimized. Though Ms. Rain has helped her aspire toward middle-class respectability, Precious learns that her social program isn’t college-preparatory. It’s a workfare program that will enable her to become a fulltime nanny, at best. Blow follows blow. Precious learns that her father’s molestations have left her with the AIDS virus.
In the final scenes, Precious confronts her mother in a family counseling session. Questioned about Precious’s abuse, Mary Jones delusionally pleads that she had to allow Precious’s rape by her father or else, “Who was gonna love me?” The film closes upon the image of Claireece Precious Jones hoisting the two incestuous children that she has finally gained custody of, her body language still ominously touched by self-abnegation but silently transformed. She has learned to read. She has learned to think. She has become a woman and a mother. She aspires to raise two children on public assistance until she graduates from college, while she concurrently battles AIDS. In most, if not all these ambitions, she will probably fail.
Precious is loaded material, a difficult movie to judge fairly in a society with so many unresolved issues of race and racial stereotypes; poverty and images of poverty; sexism, sexual abuse, and silence. Is the immersion in all this justified? Ellison argued that film’s “shadows” are illusory representations of the forces and biases of social history, not history-making agents themselves. Cinema is an aesthetic reflection or reinterpretation of “acts.” Yet if the illusion is either “real” (“authentic” or conceived in verisimilitude) or maliciously distorted—which is Precious?
Though Precious has won numerous awards and received Oscar nominations, many favorable reviews in the popular press have been characterized by a certain vagueness—as if reviewers have been hedging their bets, complimenting the film less out of enthusiasm than guilt, discomfort, or obligation. The film is too dark to permit reviewers to easily write off enjoying it, too explosive to permit any responsible critic to ignore it. When Precious has been reviewed negatively (not infrequently by black reviewers), the hostility has been vitriolic indeed.
The fiercest negative review by a black critic came from Armond White, an online reviewer and chair of the New York Film Critics Circle. White’s screed may overstate the case, but still serves usefully as an example of the emotional baggage this film dredges up and the stones that have been cast its way.
“Not since Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken) it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.” Translation: Precious has received artistic awards by playing upon feelings of racial guilt and superiority; its ethics are so debased that to gullible white audiences it looks progressive. “[Lee Daniels] casts light-skinned actors as kind (schoolteacher Paula Patton, social worker Mariah Carey, nurse Lenny Kravitz and an actual Down syndrome child as Precious’ firstborn) and dark-skinned actors as terrors. Sidibe herself is presented as an animal-like stereotype–she’s so obese her face seems bloated into a perpetual pout.” Translation: Precious has been given a free pass because black people made it, but in actuality the film is “colorist.” Colorism is an intra-communal preference for lighter-skinned African Americans that is symptomatic of black self-hatred.
White’s analogy to Birth of a Nation is the cruelest slight of all. But it is also inexact. There were no educated blacks in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and anything but respect for progressive government programs. There is no celebration of the Ku Klux Klan in Precious. A stronger analogy for the phenomenon White describes would be Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestseller that decried chattel slavery. Her characters (or her audience’s simplistic appropriation of her characters) reinforced a century of patronizing images and attitudes; her book inspired both pity and indignation. In the same way, Precious decries poverty and oppression, but its characters—Precious, her neurotic mother, and her derelict father—are themselves pity machines.
Precious reinforces the idea that blacks are poor and will stay poor because poverty somehow suits them. Of course, Precious’s character in the movie is distinguished by her refusal to accept the narrative of self-destruction that has been mapped out for her, but White was perhaps blinded to that refusal by the potent emotionalism at the heart of one of Precious’s main subjects–the incest theme.
Incest: the pathetic and radical extreme of familial dysfunction. A shame beyond shames. Surely, on the Richter scale of black oppression narratives, incest trumps illiteracy, unemployment, the crack pipe, or the drive-by shooting. Ralph Ellison knew that. In Invisible Man, the poor, illiterate sharecropper Trueblood is discovered to have fathered a child by his daughter. He becomes the pariah of the community, but also the cause célèbre. The black community refuses to speak his name, while white men bribe him with food and sympathy simply to have him retell his grotesque story to shock and delight them. Invisible Man’s narrator thinks, “How can he tell this to white men? When he knows they’ll say that all Negroes do such things. I looked at the floor, a red mist of anguish before my eyes.” White wrote similarly, “Worse than Precious itself was the ordeal of watching it with an audience of patronizing white folk, then enduring its media hoodwink as a credible depiction of black life.” Perhaps the red mist was swimming in front of the embarrassed critic’s eyes.
Ellison was parodying both the white and black communities’ responses to Trueblood’s sinking to the bottom of the moral barrel. The Trueblood episode reveals that neither white nor black characters in Invisible Man can bring themselves to see beyond incest’s shock value. They refuse to view the situation from other than a racial and male-centric stance. It should be intellectually possible to see a story like Precious first of all as a story of a young girl’s battle against sexual abuse (with marginal racial connotations), but White is overwrought by the idea that the movie might be taken as a brushstroke depiction of the whole black race (especially the lower classes). Invisible Man’s Trueblood episode approaches the incest theme expressionistically, lacking much insight into actual sexual dynamics. But in recent works by black feminist writers such as Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker in The Color Purple, incest appears as a radical symbol for the chattel-like subjugation of women, and the theme is as much sexual and feminist as racial.
When compared to these books, Push is easily the frankest account of incest’s actual dynamics. Invisible Man is expressionistic. The Bluest Eye is so poetic that its language overwhelms the surface narrative. And even the staunchly feminist The Color Purple mutes the prosaic realities of sexual abuse as a result of its fairytale approach, which was later enhanced in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation.
This is ironic given how often Push and Precious have been denounced as tasteless since they may be the least manipulative of incest narratives. Push has been used by counselors of sexual abuse, rape, and incest victims. Sapphire’s characters correspond to practical issues of family dysfunction. Precious’s mother, Mary Jones, for instance, is an abuse enabler who blames her daughter rather than her demented beau—a common feature of highly dysfunctional families.
Precious is a brilliant film, but is probably best approached by looking at it alongside Push. The film can stand on its own merits; it creates an insular world—and within that world, the viewer can find a point of view and an overall significance. But while White mangles the movie, it has also not been well served by the host of critics who have penned nervously complimentary reviews. The film isn’t particularly complex. But incest is a difficult subject, and the film’s clarity might have been better advanced by beginning to understand it through Push.
Precious’s progenitor is a first-person narrative written like a diary. It’s arguable whether a film can really be told in the first person although the adaptation retains bits of the central character’s reflections through voice narration. Many of Sapphire’s prose jewels have been sacrificed—for example, this passage in which Precious comments on The Color Purple after her class has studied the novel under Rain’s tutelage. Sapphire is also wryly defending her own novel, anticipating the controversies Push was certain to provoke given her central character’s bleak circumstances.
Ms. Rain say one of the criticism of The Color Purple is it have fairy tale ending. I would say, well shit like that can be true. Life can work out for the best sometimes. Ms. Rain love Color Purple but say realism has its virtues. Izm, smizm! Sometimes I wanna tell Ms. Rain shut up with all the izm stuff. I don’t know what “realism” mean but I do know what reality is and it’s a motherfucker, lemme tell you.
This passage is spelled out in phonetic English, like all of Push, which is important to the novel’s impact. The phonetic English reflects Claireece Precious Jones’s thought process. She detests the crack dealers that litter her neighborhood, but “I loves Harlem, especially 125th Street. Lotta stuff here. You could see we got culchure.” She resists frank acknowledgment that she has been raped until midway through the book when she discovers an analogy she can grasp. “Seven, he on me almost every night. First, it’s just in my mouth. Then it’s more. He is intercoursing me…I think what my father do is what Farrakhan say the white man did to the black woman.”
Her poetic, if disjointed, slang is an index of her illiteracy and of her troubled relationship with society outside of her disastrous home life, and of her Harlem ghetto. Consequently, as Precious’s thinking becomes clearer, stronger, and self-willed, her writing improves. Language is a visceral sign tracing the limitations of her perspective. Because Push is situated so intimately within Precious’s consciousness–and the will to speak is the will to live–Push is first and foremost an incest survivor’s story.
The novel essentially takes place inside Precious’s mind, while the film renders her thoughts into images and dramatic scenes. The images (even when they’re depictions of a fantasy life) seem to portray a three-dimensional reality as tangible as a photograph. Daniels’s visualizations of the story lend greater force to a theme that is consistent with the novel, but less pronounced in it. The central characters in the movie are black; the controversies over the film have focused on its presentation of black life, depraved stereotypes, and colorism. But the subtext of the movie is the theme of whiteness–or how the social construction of whiteness has had its impact on life in a black ghetto. The film has objectified Precious’s world, and while her world is black, its psychological fixation is white. Precious, possibly like no film before it, shows how segregated and poor communities emotionally perceive blackness and poverty—how intensely they equate poverty and race.
There are few white characters in Precious, which reinforces the sense of whiteness as a talisman of power, privilege, or even dumb luck. Precious’s welfare-addicted mother curses her child, while The 25,000 Dollar Pyramid plays on the screen: white actors espousing far-fetched dreams, achievable in games of arguable skill or through the vagaries of chance. Near the end of the film, Mary Jones breaks down and pleads that she isn’t lovable: she isn’t white. Precious attends an alternative school program that seems to replicate college-prep in whiter “good” schools but, in fact, is geared toward workfare. “I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend,” Precious says in both book and film. The reader will absorb the words in passing. Daniels has taken the relatively brief fantasy sequences in Push and created lengthy tableaus of Precious’s fantasies of success, beauty, and whiteness. The imagery is repeated to the point that Precious challenges its viewers to ask if on a visual and psychological level whiteness permeates their social reality, if this is a mere illusion and exaggeration or if such a vision of reality is reasonable–or possibly inevitable–within the peripheries of segregated poverty.
The film’s flaws–and it can be a crude film–derive from its uncompromising engagement with such volatile themes, particularly whiteness. The most justifiable criticism of the film is the one that comes closest to revealing its hidden psychological heart. Precious isn’t colorist in the sense of old-fashioned, intra-communal social snobbery, but Ms. Blu Rain (who isn’t physically described in the book) is light-skinned and lovely, and in the scenes between Sidibe and Patton it is clear that Daniels is playing with the color values of the actresses’ skin tones. Like many artists, he fathoms his theme intuitively rather than intellectually. Whiteness is a delicate subject to address in a visual entertainment–it’s easier in an academic paper. In this instance, Daniels’s film is visually striking but gratuitous; he is already jimmying open several Pandora’s boxes.
In general, the hysterical attacks on the movie take the same parochial stance as those that would view Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (a classic account of a provincial French girl’s exploitation) as a polemic against French rural life rather than a paean to a young girl’s fortitude and an indictment of all France. Neither incest nor familial dysfunction are racial themes; Precious shows how social illnesses–like medical illnesses–are exacerbated by ignorance and poverty. Precious also shows how the weight of whiteness–an intangible and insidious sense that society is ruled by white privilege–is a double burden upon the black poor.
It was a cliché, often repeated during the Obama campaign, that his election would prove to poor black children that they could ascend to the presidency; Precious is a film that looks behind this lovely idea to examine the economic forces and psychological detriments that make it an easier said than done. Precious is, in every sense, a film that pushes the country to eschew self-congratulation. The final moments in which Precious escapes from her wrecked home to begin her life on her own–accompanied by the audience’s near certainty that she will fail–are deeply touching, and Precious is easily one of the most important American films of the last thirty years.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and cultural critic living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.