Lost in Translation: A Response to 'Precious'
Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry said Precious was awesome and that everyone should go see it. Since I am the most obedient of Negroes, I saw it last Friday. If Flavor Flav is the world’s greatest hype man, this duo is officially the world’s greatest hype machine. I found Precious slightly underwhelming, uninspiring, and lacking much of what makes the novel, Push by Sapphire, so powerful. Sorry, Ms. Winfrey. I had no “A-ha!” moment.
My reaction to and assessment of the film, however, needs context. With relative ease, I could probably come up with a book list of black women’s fiction about incest–The Bluest Eye, Corregidora, etc. In other words, I have discussed, read, written, and thought about the issues the film presents visually perhaps more than the average moviegoer. So I’m willing to concede that my expectation, my threshold might have been a bit higher than the people (talking loud as hell) in front of me. Still, I think what I found troubling about the film worth mentioning. Lee Daniels & Co. had the envelope; they just didn’t push it. (Was that too heavy handed?)
A quick synopsis: It’s 1987. Precious Jones is 16 years old, illiterate, living in Harlem with her abusive mother, and pregnant with her second child by her father. The film begins with her being suspended from school, only to wind up in Each One Teach One, an alternative school where, with the help of her teacher, Ms. Rain, Precious works towards obtaining her GED, literacy, and the agency to tell her own story. Part of me thinks that Perry and Winfrey are so enthusiastic about this film because they believe the pathology articulated in the film is an inherent component of black women’s condition. But I can’t really prove that. I can only infer. Though Precious is somewhat faithful to the novel, it fails in several key ways.
First, the film lazy is at times, and doesn’t work hard enough at situating the viewer with an era that many of us forget or were too young to remember. It’s Harlem. It’s the 1980s. Crack has started to decimate black neighborhoods like Harlem. Len Bias has just died of a cocaine overdose, and the goverment has consequently changed the way drug offenders are prosecuted which, in turn, disproportionately affects blacks. The Cosby Show is the number one rated show on television, but instead the filmmakers opt to seemingly satiate their executive producer by having their main character pepper a pivotal scene with several “What would Oprah do?” lines. At other times, the film is weirdly anachronistic. Bobby Brown’s “Humpin Around,” which wasn’t released until 1992, serves as soundtrack to one of Precious’ imagined photo shoots. We see Oliver North, but that’s one of few blatant reminders of the Reagen era, and that’s unfortunate, because Precious’ mother, Mary Johnston (played by comedian Mo’Nique), would be considered a welfare queen as described by Reagan during his presidential campaign in the 1970s–an image that was reinvigorated in the 80s. I make this latter point especially because Mary and her daughter Precious–who I don’t find grotesque, as David Edelstein describes–are kinds of stereotypes. But I don’t think Sapphire, and later the filmmakers, employ these types out of laziness. Rather, I think these seemingly flat and distorted images place the work in the context of the time it was published, the 1990s, when black artists like Spike Lee and Kara Walker were using stereotypes to make a larger commentary about blackness at the end of the 20th century. But without proper contextualization, that observation can’t be made and the conversation can’t be had.
Second, though the film is faithful to the book by casting both Precious and her mother as they were described, it’s quite liberal in its portrayal of other characters, which results in several light skinned and/or mixed race characters working as Precious’ middle class saviors. For example, Ms. Rain is described in the book as having dark skin and dreadlocks. In the film however, she’s portrayed by Paula Patton, who not only gives Precious the gift of literacy, but opens her home to Precious when she finally runs away from her mother’s uptown apartment. This wouldn’t be such a problem and could be chalked up as a casting quirk if the other “good” characters weren’t also light skinned–and judgmental.
For instance, in an effort to show a positive black male figure, the film takes a minor character in the book, a presumably Puerto Rican EMT, and turns him into Nurse John (played by Lenny Kravitz) who cares for Precious while she’s in the hospital convalescing after having her baby. Of course, he later cashes in on the capital he earned by vigilantly sitting at her bedside by asking Precious to hook him up with Ms. Rain (or her partner, I couldn’t really discern). What’s more disturbing than that, however, is the moment when Precious asks Nurse John, sitting next to her bed eating a bowl of fruit, why he doesn’t like McDonald’s. He responds by saying that he goes to an organic grocery store and refuses to eat “crap” like McDonald’s. The moment is alarming, for it neither advances the film in any way nor adequately allows the viewer the opportunity to interrogate the classist assumptions in Nurse John’s line. The implicit claim in the statement, of course, is that Precious and her classmates choose to eat McDonald’s instead of organic fruit because, of course, there are so many organic grocery stores in Harlem circa 1987, thus making Precious’ unhealthy diet of fried chicken and pig’s feet a choice–and her fault. How very Obama era Reagan era of you. Perhaps I should reassess my first problem with the film.
To add further insult, when Precious asks Ms. Weiss, played by mixed race poster child Mariah Carey, about her racial identity, the social worker skirts the question and opts to buy her client a cherry Coke. Again, the conversation is odd, goes nowhere, and does nothing but subtly validate the skin privilege that Precious is so invested in. Although JoAnn’s door knocker earrings were a nice touch, I didn’t want the only indicator of this time pre-Wesley Snipes 80s era to be a plethora of attractive and nice light skinned folks onscreen. I saw so much yellow I began to feel like a coward; I swore Vanity made a cameo. Such filmic decisions do nothing but reify overused symbols: all the bad guys are shrouded in darkness, sweat, and presumably funk (see The Bluest Eye), while our fairer heroes are bourgie, clean, and always drenched in light. That said, way to go finding the light skinned chick from Head of the Class to play Ms. Rain’s partner. Who knew she was still around?
Third, though I appreciate the decision to make Mary Johnston less monstrous by giving her a monologue slightly different from the one we read in the book, I thought the brief appearance by the grandmother damaging, because her only screen time showed her shaking her head at her daughter. Such small gestures seemingly validated the viewer’s judgment of Mary. Further, it implied that Mary’s abusive and destructive behavior was not a result of her own history (of abuse), that she somehow became monstrous without precedent, without context. Indeed, Mary’s meeting with Miss Weiss and Precious is rendered in a slightly more forgiving light than we see in the novel, but by then the damage has been done. Perhaps viewers lack the capacity to have empathy for both a fat, poor, black girl and her mother. I shouldn’t hope for so much.
Still, the film is significant. I’m not sure it makes audiences uncomfortable enough–the physical abuse seems more terrible than the incest; I don’t know if we understand Precious’ visions of an alternate self as trauma-induced and not daydreams, but I think it’s incredibly important that we see someone like Gabby Sidibe onscreen. I appreciated Mo’Nique’s rather nuanced performance. (Admittedly, I cringed when she seemed to overact her way into a “red gumball” moment during the above mentioned scene.) Though I’m conflicted about having contributed monetarily to empires (Winfrey’s, Perry’s) that seem to have monopolistic and narcissistic impulses–was the Precious come to Jesus moment not a page out of the Tyler Perry playbook?–I understand that one of few ways films like Precious continue to get made is by supporting them while they’re in theaters. I worry that the (light-skinned) savior trope overwhelms the real message of the story: that of perseverance, endurance, and the incredible power in being able to articulate one’s own story, on one’s own terms. I do, however, respect the film for the conversations that will and should be had about all too common issues that are consistently ignored. Precious (hopefully) inspires folks to read the book (before seeing the movie). After seeing the film, I find it imperative that we push to know Precious ourselves.