'Precious' is an Urban Drama Pressure-Cooker Steeped in Verite Realism


City Pulse | November 2, 2009
Lee Daniels (producer of Monster's Ball) unleashes an urban drama pressure-cooker steeped in verite realism. Precious follows 16-year-old Claireece "Precious Jones" (well played by newcomer Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe). Precious is a 300-pound high school student, pregnant with her second baby by her step-father. Precious's cruel mother Mary (Mo'Nique) humiliates and physically attacks her daughter -- when she isn't giving orders from her permanent place in front of the television. Precious's daytime reveries of red carpet fame and the adulation of her imaginary fans allows her to block out her stressful reality. The lighthearted vignettes also allow the audience a chance to breathe in the midst of an unbelievably devastating story of traumatic family abuse. Precious finds hope and support when she gets into an alternative school. Paula Patton adds some much-needed optimism as Blu Rain, an altruistic teacher whose dedication to her students enables their intellectual growth. Significant too is Mariah Carey's disarming performance as Ms. Weiss, a no-nonsense welfare counselor who listens to Mary explain her treatment of her daughter. Precious is an unforgettable drama whose intrinsic truth outweighs any exploitation or politics that might attend such material. If you're looking for a gritty socially-conscious movie, this is it.

Much has been made of Oprah Winfrey's and Tyler Perry's affiliation as executive producers, and indeed it's highly unlikely that Hollywood would ever back such dark neo-realist fare. After 25-plus years of exploiting America's lower class underbelly on television with shows like Maury Povich, it might seem that Precious promises a more sensitive treatment of complex social problems that the masses would rather ridicule than spend time trying to better comprehend. The economic depression -- that national media outlets of all stripes are quick to publicize is behind us -- plays into the necessity of a more frank discussion of America's wartime environment of psychological and physical abuse that tracks back through every dollar we touch.

In the mid '30s the Federal Theater Program allowed Harold Clurman's Group Theater to foster playwrights like Clifford Odets in taking up underclass issues in a proactive way that commanded attention and demanded action from its audience when they exited the theater. There was a freedom of intellectual ideas coming fist to fist with social problems that gave audiences a sense of urgency and empowerment. In 2009, a film like Precious has to tack on a post-script title ("Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire") just to properly contextualize its foundation in reality.

As a tough-minded innocent, Precious is an accidental martyr. She represents every abused victim at Guantanamo, and every incest victim who faces each day with memories that should have never been cataloged. America has become habituated to accept all forms of social abuse in the service of a "middle-class" that in reality only existed for about 15-minutes in the early '60s. Ultimately, Precious is an intelligent person able to find an escape from a filial and social trap that could just as well be made of steel.

At a certain point, our own crippled mortality must be embraced if it is to transcend the laziness, greed, and hostile cruelty that have hardened Americans into people that we never agreed to be. For as shocking and upsetting as the film is, it barely begins to scratch the surface of social problems being constantly swept under the rug by America's corporate-owned government and media. But scratch it does. You can't read the truth in USA Today, but you can watch it on the big screen, and in all of the other between-the-line places that you're too scared to fathom. You just might wake up at the movies.

Rated R. 109 mins. (A) (Five Stars)
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