Lee Daniels’ film Precious, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire, is by turns an exhausting and exhilarating mix of utter brutality and exemplary compassion. The whole film is marked by such binaries—Gabourey Sidibe, for instance, who plays the title character, sometimes appears so opaque that her features seem like a painting, frozen in a removed, indecipherable mask of a scowl. At other times, as Precious’s journey moves forward into what one can only hope will be a better future, that stolid countenance begins to crack, as Precious starts to trust people enough to let her emotions register more readily.

This indie film has already garnered a wealth of attention, including a New York Times Magazine cover story on the director and his star, and superlative reviews. I wonder if part of this hoopla signals the eternal voyeurism of a dominant culture that in some prurient way revels in the depravations of the marginal and much less privileged. Scenes of Precious’s home life with her mother, Mary (played by the comedienne Mo’Nique, whose role here couldn’t be farther from humor), reveal a viciousness rarely seen on screen, as routine as it most likely is in some people’s lives. Mary survives on welfare checks that let her hole up in her cave-likeHarlem apartment like a hibernating bear. She does nothing but smoke, drink, and watch television day in and day out, while her anger about her daughter smolders and too often ignites.

Precious, we quickly learn, is now pregnant with her second child by her own father. Director Daniels quickly intercuts scenes of incestuous rape in flash-backs whose fragmented images communicate the older man’s intensity, strength, and refusal to take no for an answer. He throws his daughter violently onto the bed and mounts her, whispering meaningless assertions of love while he sinks deeper into his own desire. In one scene, Mary passes the bedroom door as her boyfriend rapes her daughter, witnessing but not intervening. She perverts her complicity with Precious’s degradation into jealousy that her own man would want Precious instead.

Mary’s bitterness curdles into a sour, palpable antipathy that emanates from the screen like a foul sulphurous cloud. She scowls at her daughter’s back while Precious cooks their dinner, ordering the young girl to serve her as though Precious were a menial and Mary royalty. On impulse, her anger gathers and she lashes out, throwing heavy objects at Precious’s head and viciously sweeping plates onto the floor.

Her sixteen-year-old daughter, adept at ducking and at self-preservation, absorbs with unemotional resolve the blows and the incessant insults about her weight and her stupidity that Mary metes out. Watching those horrific scenes, it’s clear why the young girl’s dark black moon-shaped face, its features crowded together by flesh, has cultivated a mask of indifference. Underneath what looks like passivity, her determination gathers and her instinct for self-protection strengthens.

A sympathetic, overworked white principal in her public school tells Precious she can no longer be a student because of her pregnancy. But the woman refers her to an “alternative school” that enrolls girls in complicated situations, and Precious doggedly pursues the lead, despite her mother’s withering scorn. She finds the school’s offices and puts her fate in the hands of a world-weary African American receptionist who registers Precious and moves her into the system that will ultimately redeem her.

To Daniels’ credit, the road to Precious’s salvation isn’t a foregone conclusion. The movie doesn’t reassure the spectator with the music cues that usually tell us there’s hope, or with predictable plot turns that allow us to follow the story comfortably, reassured that everything will work out in the end. The narrative, in fact, turns unpredictably, and every new character offers the potential to move Precious onto a different branch of her life’s path. Her new teacher—a beautiful, indeterminately ethnic, light-coffee-colored young woman named Blu Rain (Paula Patton)—offers Precious a version of tough love that she’s never felt before, and it takes Precious time to trust that her teacher’s overtures have no ulterior motive.

The other young women in her class are underprivileged but clearly haven’t experienced Precious’s level of degradation. One is a Jamaican immigrant; another is a Latina recovering drug addict; another is, presumably, an African American soft butch lesbian with a scar on her face; and another is an African American would-be fashion model whose own version of hope is so exaggerated and overblown that she manages to infect the other women with her refusal to be browbeaten into defeat. In this company, Precious feels her way, cautiously coming to believe in the safety and care she begins to feel.

Watching Sidibe break Precious open—to love, to literacy, to self-confidence—is one of the most astonishing, moving experiences I’ve ever had during a film. Sidibe handles her implicit empathy with her character’s impossible plight with command and grace, leading us carefully through Precious’s decisions and emotions so that spectators can understand her from the inside out. She privileges us with a view into the soul of a young woman whose size and countenance seems to refuse a common humanity, and lets us see Precious choose to throw in her lot with the rest by choosing to free herself from the hell of her home.

Although Precious knows she’s pregnant, her size masks how far along she is, so her unexpected labor pains make her teachers fearful enough to call an ambulance. At the hospital, where she delivers a healthy baby boy, Lenny Kravitz plays compassionate Nurse John, a man feminized by his profession and by his commitment to organic food, by his warm, level interactions, and by his quiet kind of care. His ministrations affect Precious; when he kisses her good-bye on her forehead, it’s clear she’s rarely experienced simple expressions of kindness or affection. Her school friends crowd her hospital room, flirting with Kravitz and behaving like the teenaged girls they actually are, instead of the jaded women their lives typically force them to perform.

Precious’s first baby by her father has Down syndrome and has been banished, by Mary, to live with Mary’s mother. Mary, who can’t stand the sight of her, calls the baby “Mongo,” short for “Mongoloid.” The sweet girl is friendly and affectionate, cheerful and placid.When Mary’s mother, wary and suspicious of her own daughter, brings the little girl to their Harlem apartment in anticipation of a city social worker’s visit, the three-year-old’s non-discriminating, innocent affect throws into even sharper relief the cruelty in which Precious lives.

Mary wears a wig and dresses up for the occasion, holding the baby on her lap while the clueless social worker spends five minutes in the apartment. When the official leaves, Mary rips off her wig and thrusts the baby out of her arms, her disgust and revulsion for her own family instantly reappearing in her face. But Precious loves her child, and in the simple, occasional narrative voice-overs in which she editorializes on her situation or shares her dreams, the girl admits that she’s determined that Mongo will live with her.

The narration, in fact, is used sparingly, as it provides the only evidence that Precious has a soul determined to survive despite her situation. To Daniels’ credit, he doesn’t rely on his source material for these voice-overs in a heavy-handed way; the film is less literary than it is a stunning visual record of inarticulate fear, longing, and hope, all recorded in the smallest movements of a facial muscle or the sheen of an eye.

[Spoiler alert.]

In one of the film’s most affecting scenes—and there are many—Mariah Carey, as Precious’s sympathetic new case worker, Ms. Weiss, the cruel Mary, and the wary Precious sit together in Ms. Weiss’s small cubicle, as Mary tries to persuade Precious to come home. Mo’Nique’s devastating performance in this scene shows Mary swinging frantically among her conflicting emotions: denial at the damage that’s been wrought on her daughter by Mary’s own boyfriend; anger that Precious has left her to fend for herself, so clearly was Mary dependent on the girl’s labor; fear at being left alone; and fury, still, that her man found her daughter—in her own perverse interpretation of his actions—more sexually desirable than he found her.

All three women sit in the claustrophobic public space, tears running down their cheeks, each crying for their own reasons. Ms. Weiss’s seem to be tears of disbelief, fury, and despair that people like Mary can sink so far into such degradation, and that she can do so little to help. Precious cries because she realizes her mother can never redeem herself, that she’ll never be more than a helpless batterer to whom Precious can never return. And Mary cries because she realizes at some point in her self-serving narrative that she’s not going to win this round; she’s going to walk away empty-handed, because try as she might, she can’t present herself as anything but the monster she is.

In a last ditch attempt to win Precious back, Mary disappears into the agency’s anteroom and returns with Mongo, Precious’s little daughter. Her mother thrusts the baby into Precious’s arms, and Precious finds her resolve. She tells Ms. Weiss that much as she appreciates what she’s done for her, and as much as Precious admits she likes Ms. Weiss (an admission of some consequence for such an emotionally guarded young girl), “you can’t handle me.” Standing to go, she tells Mary that she will never ever see her again. With Mongo’s hand in hers and her little boy on her shoulder, Precious leaves the agency, moving into a crowd of New Yorkers with gritty determination and utter faith in her ability, now, to survive.

Relating the plot makes Precious sound like a television-movie-of-the-week, but the film far exceeds that the stereotype. Daniels intercuts scenes of fantasy with Precious’s reality, especially when the brutality gets extreme and she needs to disassociate. In her parallel universe, she’s got a light-skinned boyfriend on her arm, and she swans through a celebrity’s life, enjoying the literal and figurative spotlight. She dances on a pedestal on a stage, watched by a theatre full of admiring fans; she works a line of screaming acolytes, signing autographs and posing for pictures; she wears satiny long dresses and her hair styled, her make-up sophisticated, a far cry from the worn-out t-shirts and jeans that compose her daily wardrobe.

Daniels films these fantasy sequences as though they’re in Technicolor, with a flat, brassy, two-dimensional color scheme and quick edits that keep the scenes fragmented and fantastical. The film never asks the spectator to reconcile these two versions of its central character. Daniels suggests these two different young women exist side-by-side in Precious’s psyche as near mirror images of one another.

In her real life, Precious is invisible; even Oprah Winfrey, who, with Tyler Perry, is one of the film’s producers, admitted that too often, she didn’t “see” girls like Precious, and vows never to make that mistake again. In the girl’s fantasies, she’s the center of adoring attention, fawned on by fans and doted on by her boyfriend, who always stands behind her, nuzzling her ear and respecting her power. Precious doesn’t really want celebrity, Daniels seems to suggest, but it’s the only image she can hang on to that represents to her what it means to be fully seen, heard, and loved.

Precious’s teachers and advocates truly do love her, as do her fellow students and Nurse John, who takes her under his wing at the hospital. When Precious wins an achievement in literacy award, her school throws a party to which all her newfound friends come.A kinship structure has grown up around Precious, and she’s buoyed and surprised by its warmth. Along with Ms. Weiss, her case worker at the agency, her teacher at the alternative school, Ms. Rain, has been quite affected by Precious. After her son is born, when it’s clear the young girl can’t return to her mother, Ms. Rain takes her home until more permanent temporary housing can be found for Precious and the baby. Ms. Rain lives in a Harlem brownstone with sophisticated ethnic appointments, including a prominently displayed poster of Ntozake Shange’s play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enough, which graces Precious with its symbolic weight during her visit.

Ms. Rain, as it happens, is a lesbian, and she and her lovely, warm partner regale Precious with stories that fade into a mélange of happy voices as Precious wonders, in her voiceover, at being taken in by “homos.” As the two women drink wine, touch one another lightly and affectionately, and coo over the little baby, Precious looks on in wonderment, as though this is the first time she’s been around people who actually love one another. The moment is moving and revealing, as it’s clear Precious has been influenced by her mother’s prejudices, but finds a grace and generosity of self that quickly helps her reject what she’s learned and embrace the possibility of difference, of kindness, and of love.

The film’s heroes and heroines—like Ms. Rain and her partner and Nurse John—are all light-skinned, complicating the politics of race in the film. In one scene, after Precious has come to trust Ms. Weiss, the case worker (Carey), she asks the woman “what color” she is. She can’t quite read her ethnicity, which, if her name is any indication, is Jewish. Precious is unsophisticated, but she sees something in this woman that reads as “not white” to her, even if it’s just a projection because Mrs. Weiss seems to empathize so strongly with her difference.

I can’t recall a film that’s illustrated such brutality and such compassion in nearly the same breadth. Nor can I recall a film in which the central character has been as complex and compelling as Precious. Watching Precious feels like witnessing a creative virtuosity—the director’s and each of the actors’—that’s tuned into something so real and somehow true, so horrible and somehow redemptive, that you can’t look away. And that, it seems, is the film’s plea: that we see girls like Precious, instead of seeing through them or refusing to look at all.

The Feminist Spectator

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