Friday, April 2, 2010

Why "Precious" Made Me Think of "Norbit."

The words "cringe" and "wince" tend to come up in any discussion of "Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire," an urban memoir of a teenage African-American girl's hellish life in 1987 New York. Talking up Academy Award contenders with my fellow pretentious movie buffs, this was the movie that always gave us pause. Everyone had heard of it, but nobody wanted to see it in theaters. One by one, we all agreed it was better to wait to see it on DVD, all hastily emphasizing that we were worried about the film's intensity and subject matter affecting our ability to judge it fairly in a theater setting. I'll fully admit I was one of them, after reading queasy descriptions of the film's content, including non-stop verbal and physical abuse, incestuous rape and molestation scenes, and a sequence where Precious steals and consumes a bucket of fried chicken, only to vomit everything up into a trash bin moments later.

I shouldn't have worried. "Precious" is an excellent film that is deserving of all the kudos that has been heaped upon it. The film is a hard watch at first, due to the subject matter, but it's honest and it's genuine and has a story that's well worth telling. And though I prepared myself for the worst, the content wasn't graphic at all, roughly on par with what you'd find in any raunchy sex comedy. I found it striking that so many of the images and concepts in this film were familiar ones, usually played for gross-out laughs or skeevy innuendoes. Seeing Precious and her mother Mary, I couldn't help but be reminded of Rasputia, the awful caricature of an obese black woman in "Norbit," played by Eddie Murphy in a fat suit. It's easy to laugh at Rasputia, an over-the-top harridan with no redeeming qualities, who is designed to be a target for derision and abuse. But when the same type of character is played straight, in a realistic environment, it's almost unbearable to watch.

The heroine, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), is the embodiment of many social ills the bulk of the audience has been trained to ignore or reject. A poor, African-American, obese, illiterate teenager, who is pregnant for the second time by an absent father, and living under the tyranny of a violently abusive mother, her situation is bleak to say the least. But the worst part is that Precious is self-aware. She understands what the world thinks of her and expects of her, which is very little on both counts. The film reveals that she is smart enough and strong-willed enough to struggle against everything that keeps her down, but it has no illusions about how far this can take her. "Precious" does not get a Hollywood happy ending where all her dreams come true. She walks away with a few personal victories and a far more positive attitude, but also with the odds stacked higher against her than ever. The emotional finale is almost shockingly unsentimental.

Much has been said about the performance of Mo'Nique as Mary, Precious's beastly mother. Once again, I was led to expect a far more monstrous, traditionally evil character than the one who actually appears onscreen. Rather the mother is terrifying because she is human, the greedy, selfish, hateful product of all the oppressive forces in the world that bear down on Precious, but still a vulnerable human being. It is impossible to laugh at her, even though she shares many of the same characteristics and mannerisms as Eddie Murphy's Rasputia. It is impossible to dismiss or ignore her presence, even when she's not in a scene. The only screen performance I can think to compare her to is Bette Davis's Baby Jane, who seemed so hatefully cruel and controlling, and yet came across as such a powerless victim at the same time.

The performances are strong all around. In fact, some of my favorites are the ones that didn't get much press, especially the kids who play Precious's classmates at her alternative school. They're vulgar, violent, crude, and mean to each other and their teacher, Ms Blue Rain (a very underappreciated Paula Patton), but they're also bright-eyed young people who are brimming over with potential that the camera doesn't miss. "Precious" also features several celebrities in smaller roles, all but unrecognizable without the aid of makeup or typical Hollywood lighting. Mariah Carey plays a social worker, Lenny Kravitz a male nurse, and Sherri Shepherd from "The View" pops up as the school receptionist. One might be tempted to accuse them of slumming for indie credibility, but none of these characters come across as noticeably ugly or dowdy. They just look like ordinary people, and frankly it's comforting to realize that they actually are people underneath all that marquee glitz.

I'm not sure if "Precious" is a great film, but I don't think that it was an exploitative film, or a film that mainstream audiences aren't ready to see, or a film that enforces stereotypes, or any of the other write-offs that have been handed down from various and sundry. It's a different film. A film about characters we don't see very often in the mainstream media, and certainly not handled with this much care or treated so seriously on their own terms. For that alone, I'm glad we have it.

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