Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is a film about an obese, sixteen year-old black girl growing up in Harlem. She is illiterate, has a really mean mama who beats, rapes, and berates her. She has two children by her father, who also infected her with HIV. Think Color Purple. After getting kicked out of junior high for being pregnant (and not for being too damned old) she arrives at an alternative school where she makes friends with other disadvantaged colored youth and finds herself by reading and writing. Think Lean on Me.
What Sapphire gives us in the book version of Precious is a long ways away from the politically safe propaganda film served up by Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, and the film’s director Lee Daniels. While the book proved to be a nuanced and critical look at failing school systems, drug-ravaged communities, child abuse, and alternative education, the film is completely sanitized of the book’s radical politics. There is no Farrakhan, there is no dreadlocked lesbian instructor, and there is not one crack addict. Instead we are steered towards conservatism through anti-welfare signage, black leader montages, and gospel. As time passes we should just assume Precious’ personal growth is because she has both seen and read (never mind she’s illiterate) the anti-welfare signs (even though they are typically hung well above her head) and that the church choir she discovers upon leaving home foreshadows things getting better. All things are possible through the Lord. Self-preservation and Christianity, popular themes for both Winfrey and Perry, are force-fed to the audience without evidence of their real-world utility. In the book we are confronted with Precious’s simultaneous disdain for and veneration of white people. Her politics are fueled not only by her own deep sense of self-hatred, but also by Farrakhan’s political ideology that informs her views on whites, drug addicts, and homosexuals. Perhaps Daniels’ team didn’t like Farrakhan’s tendency to point the finger, thus Precious loses this reference point. As a result, her values and behaviors appear more the result of improper upbringing and less grounded in deliberate political ideology. Think The Moynihan Report.
While the film may be tamer and less violent than its written counterpart, it plays directly on the audience’s innate negative reaction to things big and black and then fails to challenge us to think otherwise. Instead, our most vile beliefs about dark skin and obesity are reinforced through dramatic intercuts of boiling pigs feet, chicken theft (Precious steals a 10-piece chicken meal before her first day of alternative school), and glistening black skin. Just when we’ve had enough cursing, beating, and raping, we are all, along with Precious, rescued by light, pretty, asexual, racially ambiguous people.
The juxtaposition of light and dark–and by extension good and bad–holds steady throughout the film. It is Precious’ white principal Ms. Lichtenstein who delivers the news about the alternative school, while the mother pushes welfare in the background. From here Precious proceeds to meet Mrs. Weiss (played by Mariah Carey), whom she openly questions about her racial identity, and who in true Mariah form opts to be everybody. And last, but not least, there is Ms. Rain, the glowingly light-skinned lesbian instructor who wears turtlenecks, high-laced flat boots, drinks red wine, and plays Scrabble with her equally femme, racially ambiguous partner. As a result, a film that works so hard to offer a path away from the stereotypical welfare-dependent, absentee parent, high school drop out, only works to reinforce negative color politics. By the end of the film, we are no longer bearing witness to Precious’s fantasies (in which she is white or receiving affection from someone white), but are now active participants in Precious’s dreamscapes.