When I first saw the previews for Precious, I thought, “What a piece of contrived garbage. A clear cut Oscar vehicle designed to prey on the hearts of the disconnected middle-upper class.” Amidst the consistent flow of media support and favorable reviews, I managed to maintain my cynical view of the film. I love to argue, but despite my fervor for confrontation, I love to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, Precious not only met my expectations of mediocrity, it managed to be a little worse than I thought it could be.
A quick breakdown of Precious’s character: a large, unattractive (by Hollywood standards as the film points out) black girl. 16 years old but still in junior high. 2 children, both fathered by her father via rape, one of which is named Mongoloid (officially) and has down syndrome. Seriously. She reads at a 2nd - 3rd grade level. And here is the cruncher: she has AIDS, contracted from her father during one of the incest rape scenes.
I wasn’t going to write this review for Precious, because I couldn’t take the film seriously. It was so obvious in its attempt to emotionally rape me, that I couldn’t help but laugh. Instead of (trying) to pay attention to the message of the film, I developed a solid drinking game to be used if you want to make it through the experience without duct taping your eyelids open:
1. Anytime a stereotype is reinforced take a drink (ex. Precious steals a bucket of chicken and runs down the street eating it. Yes, that actually happens in the movie, and yes, I actually pissed myself laughing afterwards.)
2. Anytime Precious experiences a break from reality take a drink (ex. Precious is hit in the back of the head with an ashtray and dreams that she is a movie star dating a sharp-jawed white or light-skinned black man)
3. Anytime the director, Lee Daniels, does something blatantly “artsy” to pander to the awards circuit without actually considering the story.
4. Anytime the word “nigger” is used, finish your drink!
If you actually follow these rules, you will have alcohol poisoning after the first act. Precious continues a trend in American film that is here to stay for the immediate, annoying future. Each year the Oscars feature a “holocaust” film, a Clint Eastwood movie, and a movie about underprivileged browns/blacks. Last year when I saw Slumdog Millionaire, I walked out angry and was unable to articulate why. After about 10 minutes of reflection, I understood. The film was told beautifully, directed well, and had good performances and good writing. The problem was the ideology. I told my friends that if Slumdog was set in America, nobody would care because we are past the era of “rags-to-riches” stories having an impact. How does Precious circumvent this little problem? They set the movie, for apparently no reason at all, in 1987. They knew that an audience wouldn’t possibly swallow the tripe being shoved down its throat unless they hit the rewind button back to a time before so-called, post-racial America.
I’m sure some people will say, “But this is reality for some black people in America, you are not considering what it’s like for the unfortunate.” First of all, my reaction is no different than India’s after Slumdog Millionaire: that’s not our only story. India is home to the LARGEST film industry in the world and the story America chooses to cover about this vast country concentrates on the slums. The story America wants to hear from black people is also from the slums. Secondly, it may be true that somewhere (perhaps East St. Louis or Flint) this is happening, but let me ask you this: if this film were set in rural Kentucky with an overweight, mentally-inept white trash character and her children created through incest, would people care as much? Or would it have to be just another indie film with a small market and a somewhat cynical tone? Thirdly, I just recently finished Black Boy by Richard Wright. A small controversy of the book, which was excused by critics and authors alike, is that Wright borrowed a few stories from others’ lives to tell his “autobiography.” Wright, however, was setting out to paint a picture of what it was like to be a “black boy” born in the 1920’s Southern United States. His conglomeration of anecdotes serves the purpose of bringing to light, the tribulations of black people 70 years ago. Precious, on the other hand, would be in the same predicament regardless of her race. This country, and Hollywood, has a thing for thin, good-looking people who can read. If you are poor, dumb and unattractive, you do not have much of a chance. Concentrating on race adds an unnecessary, irrelevant layer to the film. Slap white skin on Precious, and she would still be in trouble.
Excusing the race issue, I will say that the film has a somewhat decent message that I had to be informed of, because I was to busy ridiculing the film. That message is that Precious can’t move forward until she accepts herself, until she looks in the mirror and sees Precious and not the skinny (white) girl she wants to be. That message is fine, apart from the race aspect. The only other problem with that message for me is that we are made to feel badly for overweight people. Not lazy overweight people, but people with Thyroid issues and the like. I can’t help but be a little insensitive. If the person had a deformity or a disability, maybe I could conjure up some sympathy, but even then I’m not sure.
God deals a cruel hand to some and who knows why, but I don’t think it makes you a bad person for wanting to look at things that are considered beautiful by the majority of people. Is it fair that some people are born one way and others another way? Absolutely not, but feeling bad for certain people accomplishes nothing. If the film is suggesting that I’m lucky to be what I am, than I can agree, but there is a big difference between gratitude or empathy and sympathy.
Which brings me back to the race issue. I read an article when Precious first came out about how this movie represents the other black America that doesn’t look like Obama. I guess. I’m not saying that Obama speaking in clear, proper English and being good-looking hasn’t helped him, but that’s true of any race in America. Our presidents are generally good-looking men who speak properly. And they have a ton of money. We are never going to have an ugly, poor and poorly-educated president. I guess Lincoln was pretty close, but obviously he was educated. Andrew Jackson was poorly educated, but he looked alright. Point is that as a people we are vain. You have to love yourself, but even after Precious learns in the movie to do so, she doesn’t suddenly believe that she looks like a Hollywood star because she doesn’t. If you look like Barack Obama, you get ahead in life, though you also need talent, drive and passion. If you don’t look good, you have to work harder and you have to learn that your perception of yourself will be reflected in how others see you. The bottom line is that I feel bad for Precious for having AIDS, two kids before 18, and a host of other things, but I’m not going to feel bad because she’s overweight and dark black. Mo’nique, who gives a great performance despite bad writing, is a large black woman that makes it work because she’s charismatic and she does not allow herself to be limited by her race or weight. Not to mention Gabourey Sidibe, who didn't let the projects, money or identity bother her in real life. I think that's the greatest irony of all. The issue isn’t weight and color, it’s education and economics. Maybe that’s the point of the film, but it sure didn’t feel like it or it felt like a very cheap version of that message.
And then there is the note at the end of the movie, “To Precious girls everywhere.” Really? You think "Precious" girls will be inspired by this film? Does Requiem for a Dream inspire drug addicts? She’s going to die at the end! It might scare them into trying to change their lives, but I don't see it inspiring anything. Not only that, but anybody who has a reality that harsh is going to be watching movies for pure escapism and I don’t blame them. That movie isn’t made for "Precious" girls, it’s made for people with a disconnected reality who can’t feel anymore.
There were some good things. Most of the performances, including Gabourey Sidibe even though she talked and wrote like a Neanderthal, were good. Mo‘nique was great and her final monologue, which was put there to save the film from being nothing more than loosely stringed together vignettes of terror, was performed amazingly. Mariah Carey actually made me double take in her second scene of the film when, for the first time, I realized it was her. Other than that, I can’t imagine having a good reaction to this film. I understand while it’ll be talked about all year, which is why I understand what’s wrong with American film.
This review is dedicated to non-Precious girls, as Precious girls won’t be able to read it.