“Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious.” This was the view of New York Press columnist Armond White upon viewing Precious (2009), the second film by director Lee Daniels. Despite picking up two Academy Awards earlier this year, White’s was not the only voice of dissent to highlight issues of racial stereotyping within the film. Based upon the novel Push by the US poet/author Sapphire, Precious follows the life of Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones (Gabourey Sidebe), an obese, 16-year-old black girl living in Harlem during 1987.
Facing both a constant tirade of violent abuse from her monstrous mother (Mo’Nique) and the realisation that she has fallen pregnant for a second time, Precious’ only form of escape is to shelter in her sub-conscious fantasies of fame and stardom. After receiving one too many blows from her tyrannical mother/other aggressors, Precious descends into extravagant day-dreams where she is the star – she is the one who walks the red carpets of tinsel town, serenades her adoring fans and emulates the musical idols that the world tells her to aspire to be. Precious craves not only love and attention, but also to escape the racial confines that still restrict America’s poorest citizens. Unfortunately, Precious’ dual structure does at times suffer from Daniels’ overzealous direction.
Sequences become saturated with audio-visual information, sagging under the weight of simultaneous flashbacks, voiceovers and vibrant (if jarring) fantasies. Adversely, Precious’ true cinematic strength lies in the numerous scenes of understated verisimilitude dotted throughout the narrative. Daniels never flinches from exposing and confronting the film’s controversial subject matter, but still finds time to insert moments of humour, albeit dark (during a speech in class, Precious confuses the word ‘incest’ with ‘insect’, an error which she grudgingly concedes to). As was widely remarked upon at the time of the film’s cinematic release (and consequent award nominations and wins), Precious is lifted out of anonymity by three superb central performances.
Sidebe’s Precious is a wonderful dichotomy – a closet extrovert whose favourite colour is yellow, yet (for most of the film) is only able to muster the bravery to mutter a few, almost inaudible words. Paula Patton impresses as Ms. Rain, Precious’ tutor and confidante, whose restrained, subtle performance remains (thankfully) distant from the archetypal ‘motivational teacher’ mould. However, the real breakout performance is that of US comedienne Mo’Nique as Precious’ brutal mother Mary; as sadistic as she is unstable, as pathetic as she is overpowering. At times genuinely emotive and affecting, whilst at others suffering from directorial over-indulgence and cliché, Precious remains an important film in the history of black cinema.