Director: Lee Daniels
Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher
Novel: Sapphire (1996)
That I caught up with Lee Daniels’s Precious late in the game (i.e. this past Monday), following its run of resoundingly successful festival appearances (major awards at Sundance and TIFF; standing ovation at Cannes) and hyperbolic critical notices (both gushy and censorious), clearly influenced my perceptions of it, and not for the better. It’s no secret that hype can be a wickedly distracting thing; but it can also tell us a lot about a film.
Oscar talk™–which Precious has been receiving since well before its domestic release last November–is high on my list of warning signs that a movie secretly has no integrity. Part of what’s so ruinous about awards season—and perhaps the very idea of handing out awards for films in the first place—is that it invites and rewards fawning: in most instances (not to say always), the films that emerge as “award-hopefuls” at year’s end are those custom-designed to flatter voters’ tastes, their sense of self-importance and awareness of “important” subjects (people like Kate Winslet and Stephen Daldry devote their entire careers to making these kinds of films). I couldn’t shake the impression while watching Precious that every “raw,” “powerhouse” moment in it was calculated to appease (liberal-minded) award-voters–perhaps because, from my vantage point mid-way through awards-season, I can see how well the film has succeeded in doing just that.
Maybe it’s unfair to place the blame on the filmmakers for the hype Precious has generated; they may have originally had only the best intentions in mind. (Besides, could the Oscars have possibly been in their sights when they debuted at Sundance?) All I can say, for my part, is that the award fever surrounding the film, and integrated into its marketing/campaign strategy (no doubt with the complicity of Lee “Monster’s Ball” Daniels), has significantly deadened the actual emotional experience of watching the film. I find it very difficult to be moved by a film when all its dramatic peaks–including the heart-tugging dialogue between Gabby Sidibe and Paula Patton, and Mo’Nique’s tearful climactic monologue–come straight out of the trailer I’ve seen a dozen times. Hyping Precious in their own right, these emotion-soaked clips have become the Oscar-jockeying equivalent of the f/x “money shots” in previews for summer blockbusters. Again, the calculation shows the more the hype grows.
Perhaps I digress. Aside from my above complaints–which all seem external (though, I think, not inconsequential) to the film in some sense–what else can I say about Precious? Most of you should know by now that the film is about an obese, illiterate black teenager (Gabourey Sidibe) from Harlem who struggles daily with poverty and an abusive mother (Mo’Nique), as well as the trauma of being raped and twice impregnated by her biological father, until education and the efforts of a kindly teacher (Paula Patton) transform her life. Being a “liberal-minded” viewer myself, I found that the film did make a lot of concessions to my particular biases, and it didn’t always feel like a ploy: I especially appreciated the film’s attempt to imbue nearly every character–even the monstrous Mo’Nique–with a measure of self-understanding and humanity (more than can be said for the potential Best Picture-winner Avatar). And it is a rare film indeed that allows you to see the beauty and inner-consciousness of an overweight, African-American female character, not to mention a film that deals so directly with incest, abusive parenting, and class and racial issues.
But (another but!), just because Precious addresses the latter issues directly, doesn’t necessarily mean it does so adequately, or responsibly. I’ll tread lightly here and reference other critics, since I’m definitely out of my area in discussing some of these topics. As glowingly as the film has been praised by some critics (Peter Travers composed a love poem or two, calling it the best film of 2009), other critics (Armond White most famously) have attacked it as racist, demeaning in its representation of inner-city black life, and particularly problematic in light of its critical standing with the majority of (white) critics. Nikole Hannah-Jones of The Oregonian perhaps frames the anxiety about Precious best: “I am skeptical about a movie that seems so heavily steeped in black pathology, yet is so embraced by the mainstream. Of course incest and illiteracy occur in the black community, as [they do] in all communities. But with so few black dramas on the big screen, I also know ‘Precious’ presents this view in a cinematic vacuum.” You begin to see what Hannah-Jones and White mean the more Precious relentlessly piles on the un-prettiness of inner-city life (e.g., Mo’Nique’s pathetic attempt to appear presentable for a social worker by throwing on a wig and smearing on lipstick; stylized flashbacks that highlight the sweat on Precious’s father’s belly as he unbuckles himself to rape her; a late appearance by the AIDS virus). Why are so many (white) critics eating this up, without compunction? Why is Precious the only film with black themes to emerge as a contender this awards season?
The other major problem, touched on by White and several other critics, is that the film casts only light-skinned performers (Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey) in the sympathetic, kind saviour roles. This is particularly alarming given that, as Latoya Peterson points out on the excellent blog Racialicious, Patton’s teacher character is darker-skinned and wears dreadlocks in the original novel. With a light-skinned actor occupying this role, the character seems to join a long line of predominantly white teacher/saviour figures in films about inner-city education (in the same blog posting mentioned above, Peterson provides a hilarious clip from MadTV to illustrate the prevalence and ridiculousness of this phenomenon). Further compounding this problem is the film’s depiction of Precious’s shame at her own skin colour; she speaks of desiring “a light-skinned boyfriend” and even envisions herself a skinny white woman while fixing her hair in front of a mirror. I don’t doubt that a black girl could have such self-consciousness about her skin colour; I am merely troubled by the fact that the film takes it for granted that Precious desires to be white (it’s almost offhandedly treated), and never comes to terms with where this identity issue stems from (could movies like Precious, with their light-skinned angels, be partially responsible for perpetuating this self-image problem?). In the absence of any deeper reflection on skin colour, Precious’s self-hatred in the film appears as just one more element to flatter critics’ sense of “raw truth” in this telling of an African-American story.
[For a fine summary of the debates surrounding Precious, see this article.]