It’s a sign of the times—at least, my times—that I didn’t attend as many of the New York Film Festival screenings as I would have liked this year. I’d been enthralled by nearly the entire press screening schedule but welcome to another episode in New Deal Sally Wears Too Many Hats. (Other episodes: “Say It Isn’t So: Four Weeks Without Laundry” and “Suitor, Realistically I Will Call You Back Next Month.”)
So I missed the Grass entries--Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's Sweetgrass and Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass, both of which I’d anticipated hotly--and hit the big-ticket items. A mixed bag, as were the corresponding press conferences. Suffice to say I met Michael Williams, The Wire’s Omar Little, glory be, who stars in Todd Solondz’s unessential Happiness sequel. More on the festival may come later this week, but right now, I am too busy worrying over the screening of Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. My problem: how to acknowledge the problems of this film without pandering to what I view as a possibly knee-jerk dislike of it.
Let’s start with the unwieldy title. Enough of a mouthful to put off marketers had Tyler Perry and Dame Oprah herself not stepped up with financing, but necessary to distinguish this project from Push, a sci-fi thriller opening this year. Incidental or not, the nod to author Sapphire feels apt. Her book may be one of the most unforgettable, unblinking American works of literature to have been published in the last 20 years. It is also one of the most redemptive, if you can soldier through its first half.
For Sapphire doesn’t fuck around. I’ve been studying her trajectory since I majored in identity politics (not officially, but I got my degree at a women’s college in the ‘90s so you do the math). Back then, she mostly generated hot, ragged doggerel that infused a sly sexuality into such womanist anthologies as This Bridge Called My Back and put the rest of the now-defunct slam scene to shame. Then Push came out. It makes as its beginning a human subsisting in the kind of primordial ooze that only modernity can really achieve: A 16-year-old, illiterate, HIV-positive, Welfare-dependent, pregnant-with-her-second-child-from her-drug-addict-daddy, black, obese, daughter of a physically and mentally abusive invalid woman who treats her like a slave rather than kin.
Precious cannot write. She cannot read. She can barely talk. She cannot formulate even to herself what her reality is because she has been installed in an emotional and intellectual Helen Keller zone by the very people who should have rescued her. Girlfriend has no tools but her own innate humanity. But this, Sapphire reminds us, is quite a lot.
The trajectory of the book is a steady, stream-of-conscious incline in which Precious is saved by her own resources as well as by the very bureaucracy that helped imprison her. As her writing sharpens into focus, so does her soul. When her second pregnancy gets her ousted from her regular school, which has allowed her to matriculate to the 9th grade despite her illiteracy, she enrolls in an alternative GED program. Her teacher, the gorgeous lesbian Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), as well as social worker Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey), gradually usher her to autonomy from her clan and to consciousness. It is a Buddhist koan in its own way, this book. It shows us how being present for and in our lives is all that is required to truly appreciate them, no matter how dour they seem.
But this is not the stuff that films are made of, even indie films—and I use the term loosely, yes. Forget about the double negative introduced by Toni Morrison’s Sula (“black and female”): Precious’ initial reality is so unremittingly dark that it is hard to imagine it translating to film accurately without a large measure of melodrama. It frontloads all its misery so convincingly that her burden becomes the reader’s burden, and then systematically, blissfully lightens it with every page. This does not exactly translate into an ideal cinematic arc, which Sapphire must have felt that as well. Word is she always resisted a film adaptation, and, upon finally signing off on this script, stepped away entirely.
So does the resulting film actually work? I am aware that many of my colleagues adamantly think not, but my answer is: mostly. Director Lee Daniels, best known for producing the wholly grim Monster’s Ball, has found the dramatic tension in Sapphire’s story by staging increasingly explosive confrontations between Precious (Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe) and her mother Mary (Mo’Nique). It helps that it’s set in 1987 Harlem, when an HIV positive diagnosis was still a death sentence and when hiphop culture still demanded something besides hypercapitalism. It helps too that Daniels has settled on a visual style that is vivid and punchy without being glib. The bright hues of that era--reds and violets and royal blues and lemons --careen at us, lightening without lessening Precious’ load. And the use of voiceover, which consists of her mumblings, proves more useful than grating (that’s twice this season counting The Informant!) as it casts the discrepancy between her internal hypervigilance and the 300-pound, small-eyed zombie seen by the world. Less compelling are the strangely pat fantasy sequences she dips into when her reality grows intolerable—when her mother goes after her, when boys in the neighborhood push her down, when she looks in the mirror. The performances themselves are extraordinary, particularly Mo’Nique’s. As the malodorious Mary, she hovers right at the edge of plausibility but, thrillingly, never jumps over that cliff.
Thus far I’m ignoring the elephant in the room. It has long been my policy to not posit or respond to other critics, and I am ashamed of my impulse to do so now. But during the screening in the Walter Reade theater, I looked around at my shrinking and shrugging colleagues and tried to recall a time I’d been more alienated from this crowd while viewing a film. Certainly not Antichrist: Watching Charlotte Gainsbourg hammer Willem Dafoe’s genitalia a tutti induced a gallows camaraderie. Maybe during Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, which I felt spoke of a once-American impulse for social-spiritual improvement that is now unapparent and unwelcome. That film invokes a similar discomfort as Precious does. I will say it bluntly: Both films require of its viewers a greater sense of context than most Americans can handle or even are capable of comprehending. We are no longer a country of generalists. We are a country of willful amnesiacs who stick to our niches and refuse to connect any dots.
Precious’ stakes are vast. To be fair, some may believe these stakes have been achieved falsely. That it suffers from the And And And Syndrome. Obesity and AIDS and illiteracy and teen pregnancy and physical abuse and incest and the lesbian plot? It just kept coming, I heard one person complain.
To a degree, it comes down to where you’ve been. Some find Precious’ plight implausible or even inconceivable. Other people who have a chance to view this film may find it just another day on the IRT. In the interest of semi-disclosure, I acknowledge that the slow-stirring violence of Mother Mary sitting on her couch, her hot-and-cold manipulation, her dark, unwelcoming house lit only by a flickering tv and her self-rationalizing anger, and the film’s overall matter-of-fact attitudes about poverty and resignation and danger, gave me a start of recognition. I identified more with Precious’ savagery than I do with most stories about families, more than I ever feel I can let on in the liberal-arts world I now inhabit. Especially now that the post-'60s guilt has lifted, we as a country seem to be expected to disavow just how horrible daily circumstances can be for many among us. Normal is a lot more relative than what makes some folks comfortable, in other words.
But there has never been anything gained from the “keeping it real” game, that battle of who has suffered more, of who legitimately can claim authority on hardship of any sort. All that matters is that some may find aspects of this film frighteningly familiar in a way very little on celluloid is to them, and others may not. And even those who can identify with aspects of Precious may find all her problems and experiences a bit much. May find this film as cheap and manipulative a bag of tricks as I find Spielberg’s.
Rest assured I’m not so earnest as to think that Sapphire, cool customer that she is, did not deliberately create a modern Job in Precious. She locked her in a place so dark that very little light could initially creep in, and then showed that even someone in that circumstance could use language and internal strength to escape into joy. As a literary device, it worked, partly because as readers we’re forced to live inside Precious so her limited self-expression is ours. She writes phonetically so that we can barely understand what she is conveying. As her writing improves, her ability to recognize and communicate her world expands and thus ours does as well. The relief granted by that process is the Buddhist principle incarnate. The coming awake.
Daniels does a good job of acknowledging Precious as Job. That the sum of her circumstances bowl over even the “institutionalized,” the people working in the system who typically think they’ve seen it all. We see it in their widened eyes and second takes. (Mariah Carey as a social worker wearing a ‘stache and a stunned expression alone may be worth the price of admission.) Even the other students in her alternative learning program, fellow Sister Outsiders, know Precious has had it bad. So to my mind, the true way to gauge whether the film works is not to determine whether her circumstances are feasible so much as whether her redemption, her coming-to and coming-out, works. Do we feel attached enough to experience relief when she comes alive? Do we believe that she has? Given what a catalog of modern woes she represents, can we find enough specificity in her redemption to care? Do we feel redeemed?
Yes, I admit I am invested enough in this story to want to give it a pass. And, like I said, my answer is mostly yes. But the reality is that when you make a film that asks so much of its viewers, you have to come correct. Hot colors, hot performances, hot music comprise a good start. But this film was bungled post-production: It bears the choppy, uneven exposition of an editor who killed the wrong babies. It is not just because I am perhaps her biggest fan that I think we see too little of Mariah. As Mrs. Weiss, she functions as an important medium between a system that fails to recognize the girl’s humanity and one that does. But the few scenes that take place between she and Precious refer to more that were clearly cut, and that absence looms large. It even undercuts the climactic confrontation between Mary, Weiss, and Precious—which in itself is edited very badly. In its final version, this scene only includes Mary’s testimony and the other two women’s response to it, but long speeches from Precious and Weiss have so obviously been omitted that you can practically glimpse the scissors. (At the NYFF press conference, Daniels acknowledged that they did make such cuts.) The result is still devastating—Mo’Nique brings it home—but fails to provide the real catharsis that Precious and we deserve at this point.
The worst I can say about this film is that it proceeds as if that catharsis has been achieved although it has not. But the best I can say about it is that somehow I did not mind. Her pain and courage had wormed its way to me despite its problematic packaging. It is a testament to the spirit of both this film individually and to the process of making a film that takes such risks that it can sprawl this far, make this much of a mess, and still generate so much good faith in at least some of its viewers. For upon its completion, I did feel redeemed. Mostly yes.