Call To Action: ‘Precious’ With A Purpose
As bold, and in your face, as love, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, was aptly renamed. This artful, passionate film by Lee Daniels is as gritty as a raw diamond in the rough, even while it revels in the tragic paradoxes of its tale and its protagonist’s life.
At Precious’ onset, its overweight, dreamily introspective 16-year-old title character (the dignified, layered Gabourey Sidibe) has been kicked out of school for being pregnant -- with her second child by an absentee father that once made a terrifying practice of regularly raping her. If that wasn’t awful enough, Precious undergoes daily physical, verbal and psychological abuse at the hands of her mother, who treats her like a cook, servant and scapegoat, often all at once, and uses her as a way to rake in additional welfare. As played by a hardened, scarily intense Mo’Nique, this matriarch must be the most monstrous, stereotypical welfare mom ever put on celluloid.
But not all is lost. Precious’ life begins to take a turn for the better, with the help of a few champions: a caring teacher (Paula Patton) and social worker (an almost unrecognizable, no-bull-no-makeup Mariah Carey). And then she gets the worst possible news you could receive as an urban, at-risk teenager in 1987.
It’s crucial to remember that this film -- dotted with Cyndi Lauper posters and positioned on the edge of the hip-hop explosion -- is set in a very specific era. That thought has been lost among critics who have wondered, justifiably, about where this muck-racking potboiler fits in, released at this moment, in an Obama America. After all, Daniel dares to go there, airing black urban life’s dirtiest laundry and seemingly confirming white American’s most sordid fears and anxieties.
Yes, Precious has likely the hardest luck of any cinematic character since days of Douglas Sirk, Mildred Pierce and ‘50s “women’s movies.” But like those films -- which pointed simultaneously to the economic and political inequality that women faced, pre-Rosie the Riveter, and the feminist movement on the horizon -- this heart-wrenching melodrama courses with a righteous urgency, the same blood that ran through crusading works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was instrumental in rousing and motivating abolitionists.
Thanks to the talents of untutored lead Sidibe and filmmaker Daniels, who seems to use every device at his disposal to convey the power of Sapphire’s novel, this is no dry political tract in favor of health care reform -- or educational funding -- and yet it’ll likely do more than any grandstanding speech on the Senate floor. Hence, Oprah Winfrey’s adoption of Precious, and co-producer stamp of approval, along with Tyler Perry’s, who so often plays to the caricatures that Winfrey seems to rise above: They’re Precious’ champions without, the corollaries to the teacher and social worker within. The message, which they both understood, is, this is a life worth saving and, against the odds, worth fighting for, never giving up hope. And that’s a message -- amid the cries of socialism and ominous warnings against a welfare state -- that Obama America can get behind.