Tuesday, December 8, 2009


"Shadowboxer" director Lee Daniels deserves every award and honor that Hollywood and critics around the world can bestow on him for his electrifying African-American social problem movie “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” (**** out of ****) that casts newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as the troubled heroine. This R-rated, 110-minute urban nightmare probably could not have been made without the help of both Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Imagine what derisive comments must have greeted this venture when the filmmakers pitched their idea for a theatrical release chronicling a year in the life of an abused obese soul sister? Who would want to suffer through a thoroughly depressing, often offensive opus about a big fat loser trapped in the ghetto? Indeed, when you watch the trailer for this film, you want to cringe because everything about this poor girl’s hopeless existence is so dreadfully appalling. She contends with an incredibly monstrous mother who treats her as if she were own personal slave. Nevertheless, despite its uncompromising subject matter, “Precious” qualifies as an inspiring film that doesn’t rely on sugar-coating and a happy ending. The bisexual African-American poet and novelist Sapphire penned her 1996 novel “Push” in first-person and adopted a rough, stylized dialect to enhance its verisimilitude. Reportedly, “Push” was Sapphire’s homage to “The Color Purple.” Ostensibly, Lionsgate—the company distributing the Daniels film--changed the title from “Push” to “Precious” to avoid any confusion between this groundbreaking film and the lackluster science fiction epic “Push” (2009) that starred Chris Evans & Dakota Fanning.

"Precious" depicts in semi-documentary fashion the plight of an illiterate, grotesquely overweight 16-year old Harlem girl poised to give birth to her second child. Ironically, Claireece 'Precious' Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) has never had a boyfriend. Indeed, her first child was a four-year-old girl afflicted with Down’s syndrome, and her tyrannical, potty-mouthed mother Mary (Mo’Nique of "Soul Plane") despises the adolescent and forces her mother to keep her. At school, Precious’ classmates ridicule her Buddha-like physique, but she maintains a stoic imperturbability and ignores their insults. Meanwhile, Mary lets her incestuous boyfriend Carl (Rodney ‘Bear’ Jackson of “Inside Man”) rape her daughter while she stands in the background and observes this act of child abuse. No, these harrowing scenes contain no nudity, but the content may be disturbing enough to alienate some audiences. In fact, Mary has allowed her out-of-control boyfriend to take advantage of Precious since the girl was three years old when mother and daughter shared the same bed with him. As the film unspools, Precious finds herself expelled from her high school because she is pregnant again. The conscientious school principal arranges for Precious to attend an alternative school called Each One Teach One where drop-outs can earn their GED. Precious learns to read and write there under the tutelage of her instructor Blu Rain (Paula Patton of “Hitch”), a dedicated but kind teacher who inspires her to keep a journal about her life. Meantime, Mary never misses an opportunity to insult, torment, and batter her obsequious daughter. Precious takes everything that her wicked mother can dish out until our heroine comes home with her infant son Abdul. Mary knocks Abdul out of her arms and begins to assault her daughter. Precious fights back, seizes baby Abdul and flees. Precious is in such a hurry that she loses her footing and topples down the stairs. Moments later, the mother hurls her portable TV at her daughter. The television narrowly misses hitting Precious and smashes into a million pieces. Precious goes to stay temporarily with Ms. Patton. She discovers that Ms. Patton is a lesbian, but she doesn’t criticize her for her sexual orientation. If all this drama weren’t overwhelming enough, Precious learns from her mother that Carl has the AIDS virus. A brave social worker, Mrs. Weiss (pop singer Mariah Carey without make-up), helps Precious escape the abuse that her villainous mother doles out with a vengeance. Eventually, Precious embarks on a life of her own without her mother and plans to enroll in college. Indeed, it is through the intervention of both Ms. Rain and Mrs. Weiss that Precious is able to find a future beyond her mother. Sure, this melodrama sounds as depressing as you can imagine because there is nothing far-fetched about it.

“Precious” ranks as a compelling and gripping cinematic experience with its kitchen-sink realism about intolerance, incest and abuse. What takes "Precious" to another level of celluloid sophistication is that Daniels takes us into the head of his protagonist, and we see everything from Precious' perspective in terms of her dreams and aspirations. Precious yearns to have a light-skinned boyfriend, beautiful clothes, and fame. Daniels stages some incredibly surreal moments. We see Precious' thoughts turned into a movie that she is watching on her mom’s television, Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women,” about Italian refugees during World War II that adds another dimension to her wretched predicament. Precious has to cook all of Mary’s meals and if Mary doesn’t like the food she makes Precious eat it. Apparently, Precious gained weight because Mary made her eat food even when she was not hungry. This abuse is alluded to in “Two Women” as Precious watches it from her warped perspective. Another extraordinary scene occurs in Precious’ bedroom as she is applying her make-up. The image reflected in the mirror is of a blond poster girl that occupies space on her wall. This ironic moment captures the escapist fantasies that fuel Precious’s life and she falls back on her imagination to evade the constant harassment of her mother and her ugly physical environment. Musician Lenny Kravitz appears a supporting role as a sympathetic male hospital nurse who takes care of Precious while she is in the hospital. Movies about social workers and the victims of parental abuse will never be the same after "Precious." Who would have thought that such an unrelentingly dire story with a first-time actress would have the sledgehammer impact that it delivers!