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movie review: PRECIOUS

[Film]

Review: PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE / Lee Daniels (2009)

by Scott Marks

[Reprinted with permission from emulsioncompulsion.com, HERE.]

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)
Directed by Lee Daniels
Written by Geoffrey Fletcher based on a novel by Sapphire (Ramona Lofton)
Starring: Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz
Photographed by Andrew Dunn
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: (5 stars)

***SPOILERS AHEAD***


There is a scene in Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore” where Peter Boyle takes George C. Scott to a porno theater to show him an 8mm stag reel that features his daughter. When it ends, Scott turns and asks, “You enjoyed showing me that, didn’t you?”

Were Lee Daniels, director of “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,” present at the screening I would have asked the same question. His current title could have been shortened considerably to “Cirque du Freak: Precious.”

Short of having Mohamed Atta fly a plane into her, every horrible fate known to man befalls Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe). The morbidly obese 16-year old Harlem teenager, twice impregnated by her father (who eventually passes on the HIV virus), lives in a modern day purgatory. Mother Mary (Mo’Nique) is Satan incarnate, a hindering behemoth who tosses frying pans and television sets almost as effortlessly as she does profane invectives.
Mary’s jealousy over the sexual attention her boyfriend pays Precious causes her to lash out at the child. Never mind that she also calls on her daughter to help finish the job when she can’t climax. When her second pregnancy results in expulsion, Precious is offered the chance to transfer to an alternative school, Each One/Teach One. Mary makes it clear to her daughter that education is a dead end.

Even though she cannot read or write, Precious does well in school. She is shown to be brighter and more sensitive than her classmates, but even on these terms Daniels refuses to afford her any dignity. Precious’ baby daughter was born with Down Syndrome and is forced by Mary to live with her grandmother. (Given her circumstances, why doesn’t Precious move in with Granny?) Everyone in the family, including Precious, refers to the baby as “Mongo.” Not once, even when she’s alone with her social worker, does Precious take a stand against the nickname. Couldn’t Daniels have instilled his character with even a modicum of humanity? Of course not. Humanity doesn’t sell tickets, exploitation does. Daniels was clearly not interested in making a well-intentioned box office dud along the lines of “Akeelah and the Bee” or “Skin.” His goal is to shock, not enlighten.

Daniels also manages to reinforce many a racial stereotype. The credits are scribbled in ebonics. At one point Precious is forced to steal in order to eat. Instead of having her shoplift at a grocery store, Daniels has her go to a fast food joint and steal a tub of fried chicken which she devours while running down the street. Why not wash it down with a grape pop and have a half a watermelon for dessert while you’re at it? Note that the restaurant is not a KFC nor do we once see any identifiable product placement. Even the sodas at the welfare office are generic. There was no way the Colonel or Coca-Cola were going to put any of their products in this picture.

In the film’s most unintentionally funny moment (and there are several), our illiterate heroine takes time away from TV game shows long enough to watch Vittorio de Sica’s “Two Women.” Precious can’t read and presumably doesn’t speak Italian, but she sits and stares at a subtitled movie. Most Americans, no matter what their background or income level, won’t watch a black-and-white movie let alone one with words printed at the bottom. Daniels includes the clip in order to allow for another dumb fantasy sequence and to let the audience know that he is trying desperately to emulate neorealism.

Who is the target audience for this film? Surely people in Precious’ situation can’t afford to fork over $10.50 for a picture show. It’s geared for white, middle class liberals who’ll cluck their tongues and shake their heads over the unfortunate plight of “those people,” all the while feeling superior about their own miserable lots in life.

Lee Daniels is a hack demagogue. There are more closeups of Sidibe in “Precious” than there are Hitler in “Triumph of the Will.” One tight head shot after another aimed at showing how grotesquely overweight the character is and just how much suffering one face can hold. In this instance, the same effect could have been achieved in long shot. It’s bad enough that Mary rejects her grandson. When she and Precious starts playing hakisak with the infant it’s clear that Daniels has no idea where to draw the line.

I had the same feeling watching “Precious” as I did “Crash”: This film is going to rake in the Oscars. Tom Long of The Detroit News said, “If you do watch — and you certainly should — you will see one of the most remarkable performances ever set to film, given by Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe.” Let’s see…Orson Welles, Audrey Hepburn, Robert Ryan, Meryl Streep, Michael Redgrave and Gabby Sidibe. Ms. Sidibe got the role for one reason and one reason alone. She looked the part. Cary Grant never won an Oscar because critics claimed that he always played himself. Let’s hope the same holds true for this newcomer. Mo’Nique is almost guaranteed a supporting actress statuette, but if you look closely, she basically plays an amped-up version of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother. Not until the final confrontation does she reveal much in the way of character shading.

Many are calling this inspirational, uplifting and improbably beautiful. True, Precious does eventually stand up to her mother with the help of social worker Ms. Weiss (a nearly unrecognizable Mariah Carey). Who are they kidding? Daniel tries to lighten the load by inserting badly filmed fantasy sequences in which Precious envisions herself a beauty queen dating the hottest boy in the class. When it ends, Precious is HIV positive. This is 1987 and the chances of her surviving are slim to none. Where is the elevation and inspiration?

Critics are not allowed to say anything bad about this movie for fear of being branded racist. Call me what you like. “Precious” is 110 minutes of ill-conceived audience abuse that will take home a Best Picture Oscar.

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