Wednesday, October 19, 2011

REVIEW: "Precious" (2009)

Clarice “Precious” Jones is a quiet, illiterate, and overweight sixteen-year-old African-American girl from the streets of Harlem. Although present in her classes, her education scores are very low (she tested with a 2.0 in junior high). But that’s not the worst of it. She comes from a very physically- and sexually-abusive family. And she is expecting a second child. One day, Precious is given an opportunity by an alternative school teacher, and soon embarks on a journey that not only tests her own personal boundaries, but also challenges and encourages her to fight for what is right for herself and for her children. As the slogan for the alternative school, “Each One, Teach One,” says, “The longest journey begins with a single step.”

Author Sapphire wrote the novel “Push” in 1996. A performance poet and teacher, she based the novel off of her own experiences with students she taught in Harlem. She was also inspired by the fact that this type of world is not expressed in literature very often. Set in the 1980s, the story brings to light issues of teenage psychology, politics, racism, the HIV epidemic, and education. In the film, Precious’s teacher Ms. Rain challenges her to “push” herself in making academic accomplishments (which is probably where the novel gets its original title.) Director Lee Daniels, in fact, compares Sapphire to the character of Ms. Rain, in how they are both “school teacher[s] with an eye for a student’s potential.”

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and Mary (Mo'Nique)
Daniels (who produced 2001’s Monster’s Ball and directed 2005’s Shadowboxer) and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher brilliantly (and brutally) illustrate the conditions of low-income African American citizens, particularly in the characters and conditions of Precious (first-timer Gabourey Sidibe) and her abusive mother, Mary (a phenomenal Oscar-winning performance by Mo’Nique). Precious is told repeatedly by her mother that she is worthless, that she’ll never mean anything, and that all she’ll ever be is “black grease to be wiped away.” The way that Precious fantasizes during these and other harsh moments are her initial means of escapism and solitude.

At the same time (and alternatively), the importance of an education is stressed, exemplified and valued. As classes progress, journaling becomes a strong tool for Precious. In time, she believes she’s actually learning something and becomes more involved in the process. During a field trip to a museum, for instance, Precious and her classmates learn about history (e.g., Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech). This inspires Precious to teach her children as they get older. Ms. Rain reassures her, “I think your first responsibility needs to be yourself.” In addition, Precious and Ms. Rain’s communication through letters signifies the importance of holding others accountable and being a light for others in dark times or environments. “What is going to be the best thing for you in this situation,” asks Ms. Rain. She later adds, “If you get your GED, you can do anything, Precious.”

Precious and Ms. Rain (Paula Patton)
She doesn’t know it yet, but Precious, in time, proves her mother wrong. This is one of the many aspects in the character relationships and conflicts that help give the story power, drama, and heartache.

The performances are impeccable and perfect. For instance, you’re not watching Mariah Carey as Mariah Carey. You’re watching Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss, Precious’s welfare social worker. She is so convincing and almost unrecognizable (ditto for musician-singer Lenny Kravitz, in his first film role as a compassionate male nurse). Paula Patton brings a level of power, experience, and understanding as Ms. Rain, who could represent a surrogate mother figure for Precious. In contrast (and like Carey), Mo’Nique is not Mo’Nique. She is Mary. She is dark, she is a monster, and she is unpredictable. She is full of unexpected tendencies, as well as surprising resonant aspects (which may be why she won the Oscar for her radical performance). In fact, during the film’s hardest, most excruciating scene (when Precious and her baby boy barely escape her mother’s violent rage, which nearly kills them both), Mary’s actions are clearly unpredictable and frightening. Later, in a more pivotal scene . . . let’s just say her character sneaks up on you and expresses herself in a way you never thought she would. As for Gabourey Sidibe’s debut, she nails it with rawness, heartbreak, and incredible growth and empathy. These actors immerse their heart and soul into these characters and truly deliver something unique, relevant, and engrossing.

Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey (who served as executive producers) became involved with the film because of the way it spoke to each of them after it played at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. For Perry, he knew that the story was profane (which he had objections about). But he also knew that it was honest and couldn’t be told any other way. For Winfrey, it reminded her of her experience working on The Color Purple film adaptation in 1985. (She received an Oscar nomination for her debut role as Sofia in that film.) Winfrey adds that, like Celie in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Precious is a character who becomes empowered by other women and by an education. Both Perry and Winfrey also saw the story as a celebration—despite the harshness of the world it’s set against—as well as a reminder that out of darkness, there is perseverance, there is hope, and there is life.

PluggedIn writer/editor Adam R. Holz summed it up best when he said in 2010, “[It’s] a hard movie to watch, but I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that it’s inspiring.”

Indeed, despite the film’s mature and excruciating subject matter (the MPAA gave it an R-rating for “child abuse involving sexual assault, and pervasive language”), including numerous f-words, sexual references/content, and references to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, Precious proves a worthwhile and inspiring film about inner-city life and the opportunities that help people become better than they thought they could be. With distant echoes to Walker’s Purple, it is also a film that offers the promise and reminder, “You mean something. You are loved.”

Notice how the opening and closing credits contrast Precious’ writing skills tremendously. At first, she’s very quiet and shy in class. But when she transfers to an alternative education program, she becomes more outspoken and gradually free. (She accepted the opportunity to learn and to “push” herself.) Yes, the story is predictable in many ways, but the development and character growth is almost like nothing you’ve ever seen before in the movies.

I highly recommend checking out the following link and audio from NPR, titled “Sapphire’s Story: How ‘Push’ Became ‘Precious’”:

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