October 29, 2009

Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is the shining star of her own imagination in the new movie Precious, which hits theaters nationwide on November 6.  Surrounded by bright lights and flashing cameras, she’s a magazine cover model with dreams of being in music videos and having a light-skinned love interest. The only thing she has to overcome are her circumstances–and boy, are there plenty of hurdles ahead of her.  

The recipe is familiar: Start with an unfailingly tragic character, pile on the hardships, throw a few famous names on the credits, then sit back and watch the Oscar nominations roll in. Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire could have been just another one film championing the underdog, but the powerful performances and unabashedly raw storytelling saves it from falling through the cracks.

Precious is pregnant, illiterate, unloved and unwanted. Her mother, Mary, (played to chilling, cruel perfection by Mo’Nique) works harder at destroying her daughter’s self-esteem than she does anything else. Precious silently endures unbridled physical and sexual abuse at home, only to experience the ridicule of her peers at school and around Harlem.  

It’s a wonder that anyone could survive the sort of utter despair that Precious lives in every day, but despite being illiterate in the ninth grade, she excels in math and is encouraged by a concerned teacher to pursue an alternative education during her pregnancy–a suggestion that her mother meets with a better one: to start collecting welfare and not to worry about education.

Luckily, Precious escapes academic purgatory and enrolls in an alternative school for pregnant students, where she meets a series of nurturing figures who instill in her the sense of love and self-worth that was absent from her household for 16 years.  In addition to her teacher and mentor Ms. Rain (played by Paula Patton), there’s her classroom of tough-yet-supportive peers, and Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse who shows her what is likely the most positive male role model that she has seen in her young life.  

There has already been considerable Oscar buzz surrounding both Mo’Nique and Sidibe, and the film has received numerous accolades, including the Grand Jury Prize for the Dramatic category at Sundance and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. The actors and director Lee Daniels deserve the praise they’ve received for making such a powerful movie.  

But beneath the film was something that I found to be problematic: a reliance on the villainization of Black matriarch–rather than a mention of systemic race issues–to make the larger message of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" more palatable.  

This is a problematic image to see in white media, but it’s even more disheartening to see in examples of Black media. What’s so problematic about Mary is that the woman is made into a monster with no redeemable qualities–a decision that isn’t only lazy on behalf of the filmmakers, but also wholly irresponsible to the African-American community.

But director Lee Daniels makes the critical mistake of ignoring the social and political reality that his characters inhabit.  Besides a title card in the beginning of the film and some outdated hairstyles, we as the audience see little of the forces that compel Mary’s actions. To ignore 1987 Harlem as the foundation for the permanent Black underclass created by the Reagan Administration through its abhorrent social reform policies–including the War on Drugs and welfare reform–is to ignore a crucial aspect of his characters’ lives.  

The political forces at work during the period operated in a much larger scope than the familial level portrayed in the film.  And that’s why it was a grievous error for Daniels to paint a portrait of Mary as a one-dimensional demon, seemingly devoid of any ounce of compassion toward even her own offspring.

The racialized image of the "welfare queen" is a cultural remnant from the 80s that persists to this day. And it is an image that Americans continue to buy into despite plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise. My problem with Mary’s character isn’t so much that she does so many horrible things–it’s that she’s portrayed as doing them without any reason whatsoever.  

While nothing would excuse being silently complicit while your daughter’s father repeatedly sexually abuses her, I can’t for a moment believe that anyone would do so without a conscience, or without any context in their larger environment. While Daniels should be commended for a brave commentary on the near impossibility of overcoming extreme adversity, he should also be aware of the archaic racialized images that his film references.

Thankfully, the performances are disarming and original enough that viewers can become engaged in the story for almost long enough to overlook those flaws.

And by the end of the movie, Precious goes through a rebirth of sorts, one that takes her from the cruel existence of the solitary life she leads in her mother’s house to a world of independence and self-worth, surrounded by friends who become a loving, supportive surrogate family.  Precious transforms from a woman who believes that she can only be beautiful by fantasizing about having blonde hair and fair skin, to one who, like any adolescent, is becoming comfortable in her own reality.

Juell Stewart is a writer and activist in Brooklyn, New York.