Precious follows Claireece "Precious" Jones, an obese, illiterate 16 year-old in 1987 Harlem. She is kicked out from school for getting pregnant the second time (both times by her father) and at home, is abused by her tyrannical mother, Mary (Mo’nique). Her life starts to turn when Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), her GED instructor, and Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey), a social worker, help her transition out of abuse and illiteracy, yet not beyond the entrenched boundaries of poverty and HIV.
“Mariah Carey and Mo’nique are in it? And Tyer Perry’s producing it?” My friend saw a still of Precious and assumed it was a comedy.
When names like Mariah Carey, Tyler Perry and Oprah, who co-produced the film, are being mentioned, it certainly doesn’t evoke impressions of spellbinding acting, seriousness or poverty, respectively. Additionally, because the premise of Precious is already incredibly dramatic, it predisposes the film to be judged and criticized before it’s been seen. But descriptions like “poverty porn,” “stereotypical,” and “Lifetime-y,” are unoriginal presumptions that overlook the film’s idiosyncrasies.2
Watch before you judge: serious and Mariah Carey unite impressively well in Precious. Flickr Creative Commons.1
Viewers will be afraid to blink throughout the film or will cover their eyes completely because director Lee Daniels will engage you by making you feel uncomfortable. The camera in Precious is rarely completely still, even when attending still scenes: this perpetuates the underlying vigilance and instability that characterized 1980’s Harlem. Contrastingly, Precious is stoic and stagnant: she hesitates to speak and readily accepts abuse. Her appearance may suggest otherwise, but she's inhibited and defenseless, handicapped by years of trauma. It is through this presentation, a perspective only film can provide, we can begin to sympathize with Precious, the girl who symbolizes every one of America’s problems.
And abandoning our preconceptions is easy for a film this unique: nothing is unnecessarily sensationalized because nothing needs to be. Precious herself may be a 350-pound cliché (especially as she steals fried chicken and craves McDonald's) but the film’s approach to New York’s social injustice is surprisingly stark and believable. Guns, drugs and male aggression are ignored. The film instead spotlights exclusively on minority women and depicts the most pervasive kinds of violence: domestic, sexual and worst of all, unreported. It’s startling just to see Mary talk: Mo’nique revealed she was portraying her own abuser from childhood, and the camerawork complements her intensity with frequent close-ups, shots from Precious’s colossal yet vulnerable point of view, and cut-ins of hand gestures (which reveal a lot about internal state).3
Consequently, Daniels’ discreet portrayal paints a New York City darker than what we’re used to: he reveals endemic issues that can’t be solved valiantly or temporarily as they can be in Martin Scorsese’s films or Slumdog Millionaire. Precious may be one of the most painful films of the year because it concentrates on familiar social problems resolved by acquiescence, not fairy-tale endings.
"Bittersweet" is a fitting oxymoron to describe general reaction: it's that sad film you love because it makes you cry. And maybe because it’s that time of the year, an incongruous alignment of Holiday cheer and finals stress, I was especially moved by Precious. My problems and pains may all be relative, yes, but how lucky am I? How lucky are you?
1 "Marcel Duchamp and Mariah Carey play chess." Wreck and Salvage. Flickr Creative Commons. 1 Nov. 2008.
2 Peterson, Latoya. "Precious Reactions Interesting, Infuriating." Jezebel. 02 Nov. 2009. Web. 08 Dec. 2009. <http://jezebel.com/5395444/precious-reactions-interesting-infuriating>.
3 Hirschberg, Lynn. "The Audacity of Precious." The New York Times Magazine 25 Oct. 2009. The New York Times Magazine Online. 21 Oct. 2009. Web. 8 Dec. 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/magazine/25precious-t.html?pagewanted=4>.