November 30, 2009

Taking It Home: Precious

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

The most tragic "happy" ending you'll see in any movie this year...

Sitting through Precious in a movie theater is about as torturous a cinematic experience you can get these days outside of a Saw film. It is the most foul-mouthed, stomach-churning, disturbingly violent film I've seen in 2009, and despite the fact that little blood is actually shed, its characters (Precious in particular) are, along with the audience, beaten to unconscious submission during 110 minutes of unrelenting emotional violation at the hands of director Lee Daniels.

Yes, Precious delivers a knockout, battering us with so much vile depravity that we leave the theater unsure of what we're even supposed to feel, and unable to immediately understand that the abuse has been inflicted on us not to educate or evoke sympathy, but to make a tragic ending appear relatively uplifting. It's been called "unflinchingly gritty" and "brutally realistic" and all kinds of other hyperbole (most are accurate), but the most explicit truth in this film is left out: Precious Jones is dead.

She doesn't die in the film (I assume she doesn't die in the novel by Sapphire, either), but the life expectancy of an illiterate, unemployed, morbidly obese, psychologically traumatized, HIV-positive mother of two in 1987 Harlem was not very high, and it would be nothing short of miraculous if Precious were alive in 2009.

So what, am I criticizing a harsh movie for not being harsh enough? Of course not; I'm no glutton for punishment. But I do think the "real" reality of a story like this is worth discussing in the context of reviews calling it "triumphant", "heart-warming", "improbably beautiful", "exhilarating", and "irresistibly inspirational". To me, that's like calling the ending credits of Schindler's List somehow "uplifting", and I'm flabbergasted by the report that Precious received an unabated 15 minute standing ovation following its premiere at Cannes earlier this year. How could a packed audience have the emotional wherewithal for that kind of immediate response?


Anyway, the optimist in me may have wanted to leave Precious feeling encouraged by its ending, but the pessimist in me refuses to acknowledge any light in the horrifying darkness of this film, particularly not in a way that will let it fade away in my mind. No, if any movie needs to be taken home by more people without an easy resolution, it is Precious. (And if you want to call me on a double standard for celebrating Slumdog Millionaire despite its focus on poverty, the only defense I can offer is that I found Precious significantly lacking in human decency, love, hope, cultural insight, and, for lack of a better word, entertainment value.)

At the end of the day, there are two glaring messages that jumped out at me from Precious. The first is that child abuse (particularly of a sexual nature) is unimaginably and permanently traumatizing. Few people could have argued with that point anyway, but the abuse in Precious is so graphically portrayed that no one leaving this film should think of it in the same way again. I think it's worth pointing out that Lee Daniels, Oprah Winfrey, and Tyler Perry (the latter two of whom came on board with distribution money after the film wowed Sundance) were all victims of child abuse, and each has spoken openly about it. Whether they see Precious as some sort of catharsis or not I can't say, but if people are appreciative of Daniels showing things as they really are, well I guess I can understand that hype, as disturbing as it may be.

On the other hand, it would be nice if the glints of hope and love that do exist weren't so overshadowed by the horror. Paula Patton's character, Ms. Rain, is getting almost no ink in the writing about Precious, when I would argue her character deserves some recognition for being the only person to show Precious genuine compassion. Their relationship was admittedly melodramatic at points and a little too reminiscent of Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers (both inspired by true stories, unlike Precious), but as somebody who spent time teaching in a school where education really was the only way out for some students, I don't overlook the importance of those exchanges.

In fact the only time I even became emotional during Precious was when Ms. Rain told Precious that she loved her. Most audience members probably rolled their eyes, but I absorbed it as the first and only time somebody had ever said those words to Precious in her sixteen years of life. Now that is a devastating realization that has stayed with me, because no human anywhere should have to live that long without hearing those words.

Which brings me to the second message, one I'm afraid Precious inadvertently delivers: that the African-American community can't take care of itself. The issue of racism (a term too often misapplied), at least on the part of Daniels as a filmmaker or artist, is not part of this discussion. But by depicting the most base and extreme aspects of this historically marginalized culture, he threatens to reinforce the conscious stereotypes that some people proudly have and the unconscious stereotypes that the rest of us claim not to have.

In a performance that in my mind is unquestionably the most impressive in 2009, by a man or woman, leading or supporting, Mo'Nique brings to life an absolute monster of a human. It's too believable, unfortunately, and I'm afraid it will be fuel for the fire stoked by those who rail against welfare recipients and unemployed single parents while never taking into consideration any social factors at work, much less cultural roles or historical legacies of class, immigration, and yes, racism. Fact is, the current recession has placed millions of unemployed single parents on welfare (1 in 8 Americans rely on food stamps, according to an NYT article I read yesterday), but only now is it seen as acceptable, and only now, when hard-working blue collar workers in the Heartland need help, are recipients of government aid no longer automatically considered "lazy" and "unskilled".

Sadly, this kind of compassion and understanding has always been missing for the Precious Jones of the world, stuck in a cycle of poverty and abuse and derided by a DIY, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture. Well, Precious tried, and it may have given her the hope to survive for a few more years. But life shouldn't be about surviving. It should be about living, and Precious was never able to do that.

What did you take home?


  1. "I found Precious significantly lacking in human decency, love, hope, cultural insight, and, for lack of a better word, entertainment value."

    I agree with you here - well said - and I agree with other points you make here: the cultural stereotyping and the redeeming moment when Ms. Rain says she loves Precious.

    This is a very thoughtful post and it clearly delineates this film's problematic nature. I wasn't very moved by this film - and I wasn't as horrified as I probably should have been. I try to sort out why this is so on my post. In short, for me, the film became more about the abuses than about the character of Precious. There was a well-intended story that got smothered.

  2. Thanks, Hokahey. I'll need to read your thoughts further, because I'm surprised to hear you say that you felt it was mostly about the abuse, while at the same time you weren't as horrified as others (including me, possibly). Either way, yes, I don't think Precious, and by extension Gabby Sidibe, was really given any chance to develop as a character. We saw her fantasies and we saw her desperate actions and reactions, but so much time was spent abusing her that I felt we didn't even get to know who she was. True to life, I suppose, and maybe that's the intended irony.

    Regarding the cultural stereotyping, I should reinforce that I don't think Daniels (or Perry or Winfrey, as Armond White argues) is complicit in some form of racist self-loathing, but I fear that audiences won't see some of the characters as the anomalies that they are. These are the same troubled characters we've seen over and over again on film and in the news, and we absorb them into our subconscious as representations of some fabricated reality, and then, even worse, we base our opinions on how real people live and behave (and we end up patronizing people who don't live and behave like that with cheap praise). So it's troubling to me that Daniels didn't appear to give much consideration to what kind of thinking this could feed into. Or maybe I'm just being overly sensitive.

    At the end of the day I'm thrilled that a film like this can be made and distributed without the support from Big Hollywood, because I think it has an important story to tell and I think it showcases some terrific talent in the African-American film community. But it's frustrating that only horrifying movies like Precious (or its predecessor The Color Purple) end up reaching the largest audiences. It's like the local news - when it comes to people of color, the only stories that "sell" are the extremely negative ones.

  3. I'm really torn over this movie. On one hand, I'm thrilled that a movie about a character like Precious can not only get made, but can be embraced.

    On the other hand, I didn't find it especially effective filmmaking. It gets by on an audience's sympathies, but that seems all to easy for me. Who WOULDN'T root for Precious?

    Plus, I have to say I was a little disappointed to learn it wasn't a true story. I was prepared to accept the extremity of the story if it had been real, but since it's not I feel a little taken advantage of. It was just so over the top. It's an insult to the millions of "ordinary" folks who are struggling with poverty, especially the many honest wellfare recipients.

    And yes, that ending is odd. Because of the timing it feels upbeat (which is the oldest trick in the storytelling book), but when you think about it for just a minute, it's not at all. But is that a bad thing? I don't know. Turning it into a happy end would seem very contrived and dishonest.

    The thing is, I actually feel a weird kind of guilt because I sort of liked The Blind Side. They're two totally different movies, but they're both about large, poor, illiterate African Americans so a comparison seems fair.

    If I stop and think about Blind Side critically at all, it's kind of offensive. It's easier for an audience to handle because there's a nice saintly upper class white family to hold our hand and make sure everything turns out ok, but we all know that's a fantasy. Ironic though that Blind Side is based on a true story and Precious isn't.

    Ugh...I'm totally rambling here. I don't have my thoughts in order.

  4. Daniel - I haven't seen this film and probably won't because at this stage in my life, I've taken in about as much vicarious abuse as I can. I don't think it can teach me anything, and I'm already catalyzed to action, so I choose not to go through the torment.

    However, I really loved your review and your thoughtful appraisal of the possible reactions to the film. Cannes, to my mind, is always interested in films that can make them feel noble and racist at the same time. Read Rod's review today of Samson & Delilah for more of the same. I know African Americans historically have experienced a sense of appreciation and freedom in France they didn't get in their native land, but let's not forget that Josephine Baker had to dance topless while wearing a banana skirt. The French are very good at keeping their prejudices behind closed doors.

    I agree with you, though, that worries about the unconscious responses of audiences should not deter filmmakers from making the films they want to make and putting some talented, underutilized minority actors to work. There certainly are "families" like this one, and it wouldn't hurt people younger or more sheltered than I am to know about it firsthand. Cinema, we both believe, can transform lives. Perhaps Precious will do that for a few people.

  5. No I love those thoughts, Craig. This isn't a movie to have a crystal clear opinion on, that's for sure (unless you're Armond White, or Roger Ebert).

    When it comes to evoking sympathy, I also found Daniels' approach really extreme. He didn't need to do much beyond the first few minutes of the movie to bring us to our knees in despair for her plight, so the harassment on the street and the relentless verbal abuse, for example, only served as salt in an already raw wound. Sure it hurts, but you're so numbed by the pain that you can't really process what's happening on an emotional level, and it becomes an exercise in endurance more than anything else.

    I'm also torn about the truth behind the story. Sapphire apparently based it on her experiences teaching literacy in Harlem, but it's hard to know (especially since I haven't read the novel) if the character of Precious was based on many or one of her students. It doesn't really matter, I suppose, unless people write it off outright as "made up" or impossible, because while I didn't find the circumstances necessarily over the top (as horrifying as they were), I do think a number of the scenes were overly long, especially the last one with Mo'Nique in the welfare office.

    Despite the positive reviews, I skipped The Blind Side for basically the reasons that you point out. Whether it was really rooted in reality or not it, just looked really patronizing and, in a word, pointless as a feature film. Now if it were a documentary that would be a different story, but it's not - it's a Hollywood sapfest specifically made to pander to people's emotions. Is that too harsh, haha, considering I haven't seen it? Jason Bellamy is familiar with the true story and he has some really interesting thoughts on that movie's production as well.

  6. Yes, Marilyn, I would say you're someone who isn't going to have any real epiphany while watching Precious, so thanks for taking the time to read through this anyway. Interesting take on the French reaction to Precious, too - I didn't think about that.

    I did see Rod's review of Samson and Delilah but did not read it as I was still hoping to see it at first opportunity. I'm a little disappointed to hear that it may be more patronizing than penetrating, but I'd still like to see it if for no other reason than because seeing aboriginal characters and actors on screen these days is like seeing Halley's Comet.

    Which I suppose is why I'll continue to tepidly support films like Precious - they may be enlightening for some people and they do give filmmakers like Daniels and Perry, both of whom are essentially shut out from Hollywood, the opportunity to bring important issues to light. It's just that there are other films and stories from the African-American community that rarely get the attention, praise, or audiences that Precious has. From the last few years I would offer The Great Debaters, Akeelah and the Bee, Brown Sugar, Pride, and even Cadillac Records.

  7. Now if it were a documentary that would be a different story, but it's not - it's a Hollywood sapfest specifically made to pander to people's emotions.

    Yep, that describes Precious perfectly.

    Oh, wait, you were talking about The Blind Side.

    Nuff said, I suppose, but I'll be back with more thoughts later. One more thing for now though ...

    I believe the novel Push was inspired by real life, as they say, only in terms of the character, not what happens to her, if you follow me. That said, it's beginning to bother me that so many people are defending Precious as a "this really happens" kind of story. Of course it happens. Pick up the newspaper. I fail to see how taking random tragedies and aiming them at one person is an achievement in anything more than marksmanship.

  8. Apparently the book on which The Blind Side is based is pretty solid.

    I think I literally groaned out load when I first saw the trailer for Blind Side, but at the same time I find myself kind of inhabiting an elitist shell here on the coast and I like to see what's interesting to people who don't eat, sleep and drink movies 24/7.

    Taken as a middle-of-the-road feel-good crowd pleaser, the movie was pretty damn effective (thanks mostly to Sandra Bullock of whom I'm neither a fan nor a hater). My mom would've loved it and she was no racist, just a bit sheltered from the problems of the lower class.

    As I said elsewhere, the biggest problem with it for me is that not ever poor illiterate orphan happens to be a gentle giant who just happens to have a knack for football and not every rich family actually practices the Christian values they preach on Sunday. The whole thing is pretty patronizing, but is it any worse than the cartoon stereotype of Mo'nique in Precious?

    Anyway, as an entertainment, Blind Side was fine. As a message movie it was very dubious. On the other hand, if you remove the race component. If Michael Oher was a white kid or the rich family black, it would've made me much less queasy. Maybe that says more about me than it does about Blind Side.

    At the same time, I wonder what the critics and the Sundance elitists would've made of Precious had she been white trailer trash. Is that even a fair question?

  9. Great write-up. The way you described the ending as tragically happy is a perfect way to put it. In any other film, the ending would seem like the furthest thing from hope, but compared to everything else we are put through in this film, it makes us feel a little bit better about Precious.

    What has stuck with me from this film is the performances and the emotional impact. No other film this year has come even remotely close to the the amount of emotions this film made me feel. The four actresses in this film (Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Patton, Carey) are pitch-perfect, and a big part of this film's success.

    If you haven't read the book, I would recommend staying away from it because it is even more graphic than the film. The novel is told from Precious' point of view, and the grammar errors throughout the book are heartbreaking.

  10. Jason, I've been guilty multiple times of that "this stuff really happens so it must be important and everybody must watch it" stance, but I'm learning to (or trying to learn to) pick and choose based on how messages are presented. I can only recommend Precious with reservations, and even then only to people who I think might somehow "benefit" from it, if that's possible. On the other hand, as Marilyn so beautifully stated, I am someone who idealistically believes that cinema can change lives. It's the only reason I watch them and the only reason I spend time thinking about them. So the fact that there are real discussions about a movie like Precious is fulfilling for me.

    Again, fantastic thoughts, Craig. I love that you and Jason have done some serious thinking about The Blind Side, as most people I've seen, even those who have praised it, simply pass it off as a feel-good movie with great performance by Bullock (the Best Actress buzz has me floored). But from what you're both saying there's a lot more to it that they can't talk about when writing for their corporate newspapers, especially between the coasts. It sounds like Precious-lite; people get to see some of the effects of poverty without seeing the source - and without experiencing the true horror.

    Either way I'm still not convinced I need to see the thing, but I'll admit that I'm being unfair if I go too far in criticizing it sight unseen. Oh, and if it were a poor illiterate white kid and the rich family were black? Now that is a movie I would pay to see.

    Thanks, Danny. I know you were more positive on this one than I was, and if I were to judge on generic filmmaking standards alone (cinematography, acting, music) then I think I would be right there with you. But I had to look at this from a different angle and it just didn't fully land for me, even though I still recognize some really impressive talent on display. Duly noted about the novel, too, both because of the abuse details and because the speleng wud giv me a hedak. Sounds like an intriguing literary experiment, though.

  11. Haha, I think you captured the spelling perfectly. It is a very unique piece of literature and perhaps you might be able to get through it in a couple years once the story has been out of your head for a decent amount of time.

    Totally agree with you about Patton's character by the way. The scene you mentioned where Ms. Rain tells Precious she loves her was in fact the scene in this film that made me tear up. I loved Patton's performance and her character and I think that the scenes between her and Sidibe were among the film's best.

  12. I thought Patton's performance was nice, but...I don't really know how to say this, but she was almost too pretty for the part, like a beautiful, vibrant rose in this dark and grimy corner of Harlem. It seemed like the light was always shining on her just so. Am I saying everybody else was ugly in comparison? Not necessarily, but I just found it an interesting casting choice. Same goes for Lenny Kravitz (making his acting debut - why?) and Mariah Carey. They're all capable, even above-average actors. But their presence here was, at least for me, a little distracting.

  13. Daniel, this is one of the greatest threads you've had here as of late, and your superlative assessment of this rather infuriating film certainly is the catalyst.

    When you say this:

    "Yes, Precious delivers a knockout, battering us with so much vile depravity that we leave the theater unsure of what we're even supposed to feel, and unable to immediately understand that the abuse has been inflicted on us not to educate or evoke sympathy, but to make a tragic ending appear relatively uplifting...."

    you speak for more than just youself. I've read some other comment shere from people who don't need a film about child abuse, especially since we get our fill in newspaper and television coverage. But such is the nature of society where this kind of blight always takes center stage. You'll recall not long ago that unconscionable crime involving that young girl who was kept for 12 years or so in a backyard shelter, sexually serving a demented pervert who actually fathered her two kids. The story was reported exhaustively, and most people of course for right or wrong used to episode to channel their hatred. But equally barbaric accounts are a regularity in inner city settings like that of PRECIOUS. I remember well the superb discussion at Jason Bellamy's site after his excellent review posted, and again I think the general disdain is warranted.

    And this:

    "Which brings me to the second message I'm afraid Precious inadvertently delivers: that the African-American community can't take care of itself."

    is disturbing for sure, but I must agree with you. I also believe that declaration from Ms. Rains was a moving moment, even if it was formulaic.

    Mo'nique is indeed extraordinary, but I don't think we can really quibble with any of the performances. It's teh characters they play and the situation they are in that seems to have been recipient to some narrative exploitation, and of a very disturbing nature.

    As far as THE BLIND SIDE goes, I am definitely not a fan, but I'll leave that be for now.

    This is really a tremendous essay, as you have left the box and examined extended feelings, and not just a convential component appraisal. You have a talent for this.

  14. ...but I don't think we can really quibble with any of the performances. It's the characters they play and the situation they are in that seems to have been recipient to some narrative exploitation, and of a very disturbing nature.

    Amen, Sam! That nails it!

  15. Thanks very much Jason.

  16. That's a good point about the imbalanced news coverage of stories like this, Sam, and the challenge of adapting them to film. It's a fine line between awareness and sensationalism. Obviously through my Reel Life series I've made it clear that I'm all for true stories being adapted to film - but I try to steer clear of ideas like that dungeon story. Nobody needs to be taken into that world for any reason. Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts and encouragement as always!

    Oh, and entirely unrelated thought but I was reminded as I was leaving a comment on this movie elsewhere. The soundtrack for Precious is among the best of the year. Definitely a strong point, along with the acting and even the cinematography.

  17. Daniel-

    I think this may be the best appraisal of "Precious" that I have read. You delineate its strengths, weaknesses and challenges very persuasively.

    Like you, I'm completely baffled by the marketing of "Precious" as a "triumph of the human spirit" story, when it's anythin but triumphant. I'm also happy to see that you gave a shout out to Paula Patton, because the film would be unbearable without her and the little bit of compassion that she extends to Precious.

    Mo'Nique was electrifying. I think I litterally stopped breathing (for a moment anyway)during that final scene. How anyone walks away from that finale feeling in anwyay uplifted is a mystery to me.

  18. Thanks for that generous assessment, Pat. This was really rushed and scattered writing, so I'm surprised and pleased that it ended up making any sense.

    Since you mention Paula Patton's character - I thought it was another interesting layer of true life that she was revealed as a lesbian, since Sapphire, the author of the novel, is also a lesbian. Whether or not she actually took any of her students in when they were homeless, I don't know (and again, I'm ignorant of the details of the novel), but for a while in Precious I was concerned that it was going to become a story about Ms. Rain instead of Precious. To Lee Daniels' credit, he kept the focus on Precious, but at the end of the movie I just found it curious - was Precious comforted by the fact that Ms. Rain was a lesbian? What did that really mean to her, especially in the context of her (Precious) own relationships with men, her fantasies about that boy on the street, and the gay student in her class? Not to mention the sexual abuse on the part of her own mother.

    I don't know what I'm trying to figure out, and it's a completely tangential thought from the compassion point we've discussed, but it seemed like Ms. Rain's sexuality was given highlighted attention and I couldn't figure out exactly why.

    And Mo'Nique, yes, she was incredible. Some have called her performance one-note, but I thought there was actual some nuance between her interactions with Precious and her interactions with anyone else. Either way, has anybody in any movie this year so fully committed themself to a particular role? The only person I can think of is Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in Hunger. But even he (and partly because he was meant to be more reserved) did not appear to me as emotionally engaged as Mo'Nique. I'm just shocked that she is not getting more attention for this performance, and I really hope it's not because people didn't think it was a stretch for her.

  19. Now I think I am going to have to watch this film if it is garnering this type of reaction.

  20. If and when you do, let us know if left any impression on you.

  21. Lord knows if I am going to ever review this or not - not sure what I can really say that hasn't been said before, not that that ever stopped me before - but I liked it a lot. A lot more than I expected to. Basically, certain directorial choices are what bugged me the most but the performances were so amazing, Mo'Nique...just wow, that initially I didn't pay too much mind to its flaws. Unfortunately, they seem to stand out the further I get away from the film. Anyway, hope I make my mind up about whether or not I will review it so that I can read what I am sure is a great review of yours. Miss your writing, damn it!

  22. Not as miss as everyone misses yours, Nick. Wow, so great to have you chime in here again. I need to go join the welcome chorus over at Fataculture!

  23. It is brutal, but that's kind of the point. I think why it's being embraced because it is triumphant in its own way. It's a very small, simple triumph, but just the very act of walking out on her mother in the end and finally saying that "I've had enough, I'm taking control of my life" is, I think, a very brave way to end it. There's no forced, unrealistic turn of events. But Precious has left her poisonous surroundings behind and is finally ready to try and make a better life for her and her children. Whether she will succeed or not is tough to say, but the opportunity is there. And that's what matters.

  24. Fair point, Matthew, and you remind me of a comment Hokahey made on his blog about the dignity that she tries to regain at the end of the film. I admit that even I was immediately encouraged by the last scene, but soon after I left the theater the rest of the horror caught up with me and essentially overwhelmed me.

  25. Sorry for bumping a post, but I'm always elated to find another review that sees through the horror of this film and realizes that it's all simply in service to be horrific. What astounded me the most is how race isn't at all relevant in Precious' story given the abuses she suffers, but Daniels (and Sapphire for all I know) subtly but unmistakably establishes her color as somehow central to her suffering. It was such a bullshit, offensive ploy to make this drivel, the sort that would make even Von Trier turn up his nose, a half-assed play at social realism. Made me want to vomit. I actually thought The Blind Side, which flirted with condescension but was too vanilla (in more ways than one) to really get under my skin, was less offensive, which I would have never guessed walking into the theater.

  26. Thanks, Jake - no conversation should ever die around here so I'm glad you added your thoughts.

    I still haven't seen The Blind Side, but as you can see from the other comments here, you're not the only who was surprised by how even-handed it was. I'm not avoiding it actively but I still don't think I'll end up seeing it anytime soon - barring an Oscar nomination, which is more possible than you might think.

    Anyway, I would certainly agree that race is not the driving factor for the nastiness and abuse shown in Precious, but I can't completely discount the role racism plays on a more macro level in creating the need for the welfare system and the lack of social services and proper education in the inner-city. But this story isn't really about that - Daniels takes you so deep into Precious' pain and suffering that you can never really get your head above water and see what has led to this situation. Perspective is significantly lacking.

  27. Brutal film. Unflinching. Sick. Human. Man's barbarisms turned on itself, in this case, a mother turned on her daughter over jealously.

    I'm debating on whether to review this or not. I've got a couple of films ahead of this.

    I try not to read other people's reviews on a film before I write my own because of the influence they might have over my thoughts on a film. This is why I am not commenting specifically on aspects of your review like I regularly do.

  28. Not a problem at all, Film-Book. Glad you were able to check it out, as hard as it is to watch.


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