Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

“Precious” is a small independent film about an illiterate pregnant teenager, the mother of a Down syndrome child who was fathered, as was the young woman’s impending second child, by the teenager’s mostly absent father, who is married, but not to her mother. The movie is a basic position-the-protagonist-at-the-absolute-bottom-of-the-pile-and-then-let-her-work-her-way-up-and-out-of-the-dark-to-some-kind-of-success-but-with-a-step-back-for-every-two-forward-though-you-can-see-she’ll-eventually-make-it-which-brands-the-movie-a-feelgood-picture-even-though-you-feel-bad-during-the-rough-parts-and-worried-during-the-smooth-parts-because-you-know-more-rough-parts-must-be-coming-soon-type-of-film.

That clunky title? Originally titled “Push,” the movie generated buzz and has won 32 awards (last time I checked), including the Grand Jury prize and Audience award at Sundance and a Special Jury prize for Mo’Nique, plus a 15-minute standing O at Cannes. Lionsgate announced that it was buying “Push” on February 2, ’09. On February 6, Summit Entertainment opened the Dakota Fanning sci-fi action flick “Push.” Confusion at the box office ensued. Lionsgate then changed the title of its property from “Push” to “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” to avoid further audience problems while at the same time retaining the buzzworthy “Push” word where it could still be seen by moviegoers attuned to its festival kudos. Plus, the movie’s director, Lee Davis, and the book’s author, Sapphire, are tight; it took him more than 10 years to talk her into letting him do the movie, so maybe putting her name in the title was one more way to say thanks.

I read Push and watched Precious (via a screener from the Spirit Awards) the first time through in parallel. My copy of the book is a short 140 pages and the movie runs about 110 minutes, so I’d read 14 pages and then watch 11 minutes of the movie. Later, checking out some reviews of the movie by folks who hadn’t read the book, I could see how knowing the book helped me avoid some misconceptions about the intent of the screenwriter and director while watching the movie. More about this later.

Sapphire (Ramona Lofton), variously a performance artist, poet, teacher in Harlem, and writer, was, I’m delighted to say, in her late teens and present in San Francisco as a hippie during the ’67 Summer of Love, the passing and loss of which I was recently bewailing in my review of Tillsammans. Lofton chose the name Sapphire because she wanted to be taken as a scold, not a diplomatic individual like her mother; those of you familiar with Amos and Andy will recall the Kingfish’s wife Sapphire, a scold indeed. I thought that Lofton might have had her in particular in mind when she chose the name, but she has said “Well, my given name was Ramona, and I just didn’t have any use for it. I took the name Sapphire at the height of the New Age movement, when everybody was a gemstone. At one time in African-American culture, the name also had a very negative connotation. Sapphire was, like, the evil, razor-toting type of belligerent black woman, which was somehow attractive to me, especially because my mother was just the opposite.”

Precious, the eponymous protagonist in the film, was twelve, at the stove cooking, when her first labor began. When her mother realized what was happening, she knocked the girl down and kicked her hard in the head. The title “Push” references Precious’ pain during the subsequent delivery on the kitchen floor. With her pushing came intense pain, pain similar to that attendant to her struggles in the film to emerge into the adult world (her teacher tells Precious to push herself, tells all of the students in class to push themselves, as they learn to read and write); or as Sapphire puts it, “Pushing is about that very basic, primal female energy of bringing forth life. There is something very aggressive and assertive about being a female. We’re taught to be very laid-back and passive, but if we’re to survive, if we’re to move forward, we have to have that pushing energy.”

Sapphire moved to NYC in ’77. She lived for 10 years in Harlem, and watched and listened to and taught a generation of kids as they grew up, kids whom she first knew as eight-year-olds, who were eighteen when she moved. She presents Push, the book, as the classroom writing exercise of a sixteen-year-old young woman who has recently elevated her literacy skills, though not uniformly, from those of a third grader to those of, approximately, a seventh grader. The book is a first-person narrative related in idiom, which Sapphire pulls off in stretches, sometimes long stretches, to good effect. Sapphire published her book in 1996 during Clinton’s first term, looking back at the Reagan/Bush era in 1987. She wrote the book at the age of 46. She credits Alice Walker’s “the Color Purple” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eyes” as the two books that made “Push” possible, by opening the door to the subjects that it treats. “I saw a complete generation grow up while I was living in Harlem. I moved into a building in ’83 and moved out in ’93. The children who were seven and eight when I moved in were seventeen and eighteen when I moved out. I saw girls who had their first babies at fourteen. I listened to someone I had gone over a little primer with talking about her friend who got shot.”

The book is prefaced by two epigraphs: an inspirational passage from Wordsworth regarding the least of nature’s works, and the Talmudic “Every blade of grass has an Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ In other words, whoever that blade of grass, that least of nature’s works, turns out to be, she’s going to make it in the end, one way or another. If any doubt of this remains, the book’s first page includes “My name is Claireece Precious Jones. I don’t know why I’m telling you that. Guess ’cause I don’t know how far I’m gonna go with this story, or whether it’s even a story or why I’m talkin’; whether I’m gonna start from the beginning or right from here or two weeks from now. Two weeks from now? Sure you can do anything when you talking or writing, it’s not like living when you can only do what you doing. Some people tell a story ‘n it don’t make no sense or be true. But I’m gonna try to make sense and tell the truth, else what’s the f**king use? Ain’ enough lies and shit out there already?” Or, as I took this passage, “I’ve learned. I’ve learned to write and I’ll tell you how, and by the way, anything in this life is possible.”

The Precious screenplay was written by Geoffrey Fletcher, 39, who graduated from Harvard and Tisch School of the Arts at NYU ten years ago, created some film shorts in the 90s, including “Magic Markers” in 1996, which John Singleton saw and suggested turning into a feature film. That never happened, but after years of trying to break into the business, writing while working at odd jobs, Fletcher received a call from Precious’ director, Lee Daniels, who had seen “Magic Markers” too. Fletcher wasn’t the only one to write a screenplay based on the book, but his adaptation was the one that Daniels chose. Challenge and reward. The chance of a lifetime. There is something in this story similar to the inspiration built into Push. Fletcher hewed close to the line in converting the book to screenplay. He produced a script faithful to Push in every way (with one misstep). Said Fletcher, “The book was perfect. It’s hard to improve on perfection.”

This is a nice clip of him in modest-yet-delighted mode on the red carpet.

Fletcher’s screenplay displays the same modesty that he himself does on the red-carpet. He is gentle with the book and makes, I think, a satisfying decision in the film’s first scene. I’m guessing that while not wanting to bookend the movie, he was looking for a way to adumbrate the fairy-tale happyish ending of story, as, I believe, Sapphire does in the book. The essence of the film is prefigured in the first sixty seconds exactly: a red scarf hangs from a lamppost in Harlem, 1987. A breeze dislodges the scarf and it drifts downward while the movie’s protagonist, Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe), imagines that a beautiful woman, perhaps her fairy godmother, perhaps that Talmudic grass angel, is bringing the scarf to her and draping it around her neck as she stands smiling, neat and well-groomed. That is, Precious dreams, and the stuff of her dreams will be given to her by a fairy godmother, or the godmother’s two stand-ins, a school teacher and a social worker, by the end of the movie. And in the other bookend, Precious passes the scarf on to another young and abused child like she had been, herself now a fairy godmother herself for her own and other children. Of course, these minutes of filmmaking were lost on me the first time around, but it’s sort of neat to know that they are there to find later.

Gabourey Sidibe is the core, the heart, the four elephants standing on the giant tortoise holding up the world of this movie. She was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, raised in Harlem, daughter of a Senegalese cab driver, and she was 26 playing 16 when the movie was made. The director Lee Daniels is all about casting and on this one he went through a whole process with his ex-boyfriend Billy Hopkins (co-parent with Daniels of Daniel’s nephew) to find the right Precious. Casting calls all over the U.S., American-Idol-like tests and auditions. Selection of 10 candidates, none with acting experience, all sent to acting boot camp. But meantime, Daniels wanted Sidibe’s mother to audition for the mom role in the movie; Sidibe’s mom is a street performer in New York. She declined to try out but sent Gabby over and David forgot all the rest and signed her up. (Or a friend called Gabby at college as she was cramming for an exam and told her about the chance to audition. Or both.) Davis says that he interviewed 400 young women (I take that with a grain of salt). After Gabby auditioned, doing as well as the ten he had chosen, she suddenly turned into a Valley Girl, telling him how much she loved Monster’s Ball. In that moment, he realized that using one of the 10 that he had chosen would be exploitation, because the 10 were all the real Precious, whereas Gabby “could bring a voice and articulate Precious’ journey in a way that the others would not have been able to do.” I don’t know what this means.

Lee Daniels, who is 50 now, has a story to tell. It’s not all true but it’s about the gay boy from the ghett-o. “I’m a little homo, I’m a little Euro, and I’m a little ghetto.” Comes to L.A., gets a job as a receptionist in a nursing home, starts his own business. Manages some talent, including Nastassia Kinski. Raises some money for Monster’s Ball. That’s what he did and does, raised and raises money. More producer than director. Goes gangsta, and gets into casting. Took The Woodsman to Cannes (I recommend it); put Mos Def in it. He cast Def, Sean Combs, and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, had to fight for Berry, and she won an Oscar for it. Mo’Nique denies that she said at the time, “why did he cast that skinny light-colored bitch?” but she’s on record with it.

Daniels also wanted to direct. I bailed when watching his first attempt a year or two ago, The Shadowboxer. That’s the one where Cuba Gooding, hit man, is hooked up romantically with his dying stepmother, Helen Mirren; they’re raising a child. Somewhere along the line, I maxed out on Gooding, maybe for good. I didn’t take Shadowboxer seriously – didn’t know anything about its pedigree and thought I was watching schlock (maybe I was; I’ll probably never know, unless somebody dictates that I watch it again). Mirren says that she was walking down Houston Street one day, looking down watching for holes not to step in, and this wild looking dude with hair out to here came up to her, introduced himself, told her he loved her work, and that he had a movie part for her. In time, she signed up for it. She says that she loves working purple.

That was Daniels’ first movie. He’d been after Sapphire for years to give him the rights to Push and when she saw The Shadowboxer, she gave them to him. He didn’t have an easy time finding the $$$ to let him direct again but the man can raise money. He scored 8 mil off an unlikely rich couple in Denver. After Push’s success at Sundance, Oprah and Tyler Perry got on board and money ceased to be an issue.

But I digress. Another word about Fletcher’s screenplay: after the sixty-second opening, we see Precious in middle school, wearing the scarf, and she introduces herself in voiceover. Voiceover is Fletcher’s initial solution to the problem of transferring 140 pages of first-person narrative to the screen. The difference is, for a page of narrative we might get a sentence of voiceover together with Andrew Dunn’s visuals. I took the book’s narrative and the movie’s voiceover almost as internal monolog, thoughts that don’t advance the action but build the Precious character. For example, Precious explains her situation in school: she’s two classes behind, sits in class without speaking, fantasizes about the teachers, but first and foremost waits for change, hopes for change, questions why she’s in the illiterate, stuck state that she’s in. Watching her as a mostly unspeaking student at her desk in the back of class, it might be hard to guess at this turmoil in her mind, or at least to exactly impute to her the thoughts invested in her by Sapphire. I found myself at the outset automatically augmenting her sparse voiceovers in class and her silence in the principal’s office that followed with feelings and a mindset that I imagined her to have. That’s what we do with a character who doesn’t say much, right? Furnish her with some interior dialog ourselves? The interior dialog I was providing, it turns out, minimized her anger, confusion, and angst, which is spelled out in the book.

That is, in the first ten minutes of Precious, we see her (a) in math class, slugging another kid to maintain order, while telling us in voiceover that the teacher likes her and that she’d like to marry him; (b) in the principal’s office, being expelled from school for her second pregnancy; (c) at home, cooking for her mother; (d) still at home when the principal comes from school to tell the two of them about a special program called Each One Teach One that would be ideal for someone with excellent math skills, like Precious herself.

After I proceeded to invest Precious with that part of her persona not visible onscreen in (a), (b), (c), and (d), making her a teen with a gentle spirit, eyes perhaps not yet on the prize, so forth, I then read the first fourteen pages of Push. Samples that provide a glimpse into aspects of Precious Jones’ actual mindset:

(a) “First day, Mr. Wicher say, “Class turn the book pages to page 122 please.” I don’t move. He say, “Miss Jones, I said turn the book pages to page 122.” I say, “Mutherf**ker I ain’t deaf!” The whole class laugh. He turn red. He slam his han’ down on the book and say, “Try to have some discipline.” He a skinny little white man about five feets four inches. A peckerwood as my mother would say. I look at him ‘n say, “I can slam too. You wanna slam?” ‘N I pick up my book ‘n slam it down on the desk hard. The class laugh some more. He say, “Miss Jones I would appreciate it if you would leave the room right NOW.” I say, “I ain’ going nowhere mutherf**ker till the bell ring. I came here to learn maff and you gon’ teach me.” He look like a bitch just got a train pult on her. He don’t know what to do. He try to recoup, be cool, say, “Well, if you want to learn, calm down–” “I’m calm,” I tell him. He say, “If you want to learn, shut up and open your book.” His face is red, he is shaking. I back off. I have won. I guess.”

Precious maintains order in the class, but she can’t read and every page looks like every other page in a textbook to her, unless there are pictures. She acts out with Mr. Wicher because she doesn’t want him to know this. Underneath her toughness is worry and concern. But either Fletcher or I or both of us together softened that toughness in the book onscreen. So that while I watched Precious, heard what she said, saw how she acted, all the while, without quite being aware of it, as I say, her thoughts were being supplied by someone of different age, gender, education, and culture – me – furnishing her interior consciousness with these thoughts, constructed on the spot not by her brain but by mine. I imagined what she was thinking and feeling. Reading the book, told by her in the first person, she was obviously a great deal angrier, aggressive, confused, and, well, physically grounded, than what I was supposing out there in my seat. That is, Sapphire draws her so.

(b) In the movie, in the principal’s office, Precious says only that she’s pregnant because she had sex and that it isn’t fair that she’s being expelled. My take, produced for her in my brain at that point: she’s respectful, carried along by events. In the book: “I reached over the desk. I was gonna yank her fat ass out that chair. She fell backwards trying to get away from me ‘n started screaming, “SECURITY! SECURITY!””

(c) As I watched Precious take some abuse from her mother in silence onscreen, I figured she was just outclassed by the older woman, especially with Mo’Nique pulling out all the stops, whereas on page 11: “My hand slip down in the dishwater, grab the butcher knife. She bedda not hit me, I ain’ lyin’! If she hit me I will stab her ass to def, you hear me!”

(d) Finally, when the principal visits her home, in the book we get “That white bitch… that hoe… that c**t bucket…” In the movie “I felt warm..” In the book “My heart is all warm – half of it at least – thinking about Mr Wicher say I’m a good student. The other half could jus’ jump out my chest and kick Mrs Lichenstein’s ass.”

My point here being that while newcomer Gabourey portrays Precious with a certain grace and Fletcher eases up on the language in the voiceover narrative, it’s good to know how tough this particular cookie really is. Once she has a teacher and a social worker to talk to, the Push narrative backstory is transferred in large part to dialog. This means we wait till we’re well into the movie to learn some of the facts of the case, facts that help us understand Precious and what she’s had to deal with. It’s halfway through the film, with her in the alternative school, that she awakens in her thoughts, comes to, understands for the first time that she’s in fact lonely and has always been lonely, outside the circle, and that now, part of the time at least, at last, she isn’t.

Why did Daniels and Fletcher dial back the anger in the first half of the movie, which they did, along with the sex, Precious’ disabilities, and her momma’s proclivities? Too raw for a middle-class cineplex audience? Too heavy for the Oscar voters? Simply easier to make the movie with the larger bumps and spikes and sharp edges buffed down? The movie was hard enough to watch as Daniels made it, never mind trying to duplicate Push. I did notice that the first time through, I was paying more attention to the gory details, whereas the second time through I was more taken with, for example, the pacing in the first classroom scene with Ms Rain and the girls, which brought a lump to my throat. Or did Daniels and Fletcher dial it back? Maybe others in the audience picked up on Precious and her true mindset right from the jump, and for them the movie’s mood in the first half was angrier and more chaotic than it was for me. Mo’Nique clobbering her daughter. How many pages of angry words is that worth? When Precious slaps around a classmate in the alternative class, what does the book have to match the sudden percussive energy that jumps from the screen? The movie eliminates a nightmarish shelter scene, yes, but replaces it with something even stronger: after her baby is born, in the book, Precious goes home but when she steps through the front door, her momma “charged me like fifty niggers” and she runs for it, never going back; in the movie, she goes in and lets her mom hold the baby, and the physical violence in the movie peaks minutes thereafter.

FANTASIES

Precious deals with stress by distracting herself with fantasies. The first of these in the book is related by her as she trances out on the street, thinking about sex with her father: “I fall back on bed, he fall right on top of me. Then I change stations, change bodies, I be dancing in videos! In movies! I be breaking, fly, jus’ a dancing! Umm hmm heating up the stage at the Apollo for Doug E. Fresh or Al B. Shure. They love me! Say I’m one of the best dancers aint’ no doubt of or about that!” Daniels uses the dancing but lightens up the initiatory cause, with Precious being pushed down from behind by a boy in the street.

Later, when her teacher Ms Rain suddenly asks her to read: “All the air go out my body. I see bad things. I see my daddy. I see TVs I hear rap music I want something to eat I want f**k feeling from Daddy I want die I want die.” Daniels stays right with it, gets experimental here with blurred images of Patton’s mouth talking about reading, Precious’ mother calling her a dumb bitch, images of pigs feet cooking on the stove, Precious’ father on and over her telling her she’s as good as her mother, baby, a TV screen. Daniels doesn’t back off, except… Where sex is concerned, in movies as opposed to books, fantasy or no fantasy, my rule of thumb is that when the screenwriter, following the original author, starts describing the actual fluids involved (excluding There Is Something About Mary) and dripping, squirting, smearing, and ingestion therewith, we have left the main line and will find ourselves way over there in Unrated forget-that-Oscar territory. If the sex in the book were put onscreen, the director would be presenting visual material currently available only in movies produced in the San Fernando Valley. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is especially true when we’re talking about gender-specific morphology. Daniels keeps the sex abstract.

My other rule of thumb is, books are more familiar and comfortable with the hidden areas of the human body than cineplex and festival movies are: in the movie, before the first day of Precious’ new school, she takes a shower and we see her hand reach out from behind the shower curtain to pick up the toothpaste and her toothbrush; in the book, “I go splash some water on my ass, which mean I wash serious between my legs and underarm. I don’t smell like my muver.”

My other other rule of thumb is, Caligula bombed and Malcolm McDowell hasn’t recovered from it since, Heroes and Blue Thunder notwithstanding: in Precious, mom is in bed, working it, and calls to Precious to come up and help out, and Precious starts up the stairs, complaining voiceover to indicate that she doesn’t approve, scene ending with a decorous blackout; in the book, mom whacks Precious with a frying pan, makes her cook for two hours, makes her eat till she’s sick, and then gets seriously inappropriate with her. (I’d have paid to watch Daniels and Fletcher deciding how to deal with this one. They settle for giving the audience a laugh by having Precious imagine that she’s in Two Women with her mom, both speaking subtitled Italian.)

Back to the idea that to explain Precious’ mindset as presented in her Push notebook, and to sand down the sharp edges of the book, Fletcher, Daniels, and cinematographer Andrew Dunn choose to use images, along with some abbreviated voiceovers, to replace multiple pages of text. Is this effective? For example, Precious takes a placement test. Since she can’t read, the test doesn’t go so well. As she’s walking away from the Hotel Theresa in the movie, she says “There’s always something wrong with these tesses. These tesses paint a picture of me with no brain. These tesses paint a picture of me and my muver, my whole family, as less that dumb. As ugly black grease to be wiped away.” This stands in for three pages of text explaining and then explaining again her feelings of emptiness, invisibility, and worthlessness. Does the job get done? I’m saying that Gabby and Dunn get it done here.

In the book, once Precious’ son is born and she continues to advance in school, the world beginning to open to her, her fantasies recede, to be replaced in moments of stress by the alphabet. Daniels and Fletcher are slower to let go. We get just a hint of her use of the ABCs to de-stress in the movie. Instead, when Precious escapes from her mother with her baby, her and Abdul both still in one piece, and she looks into a church and imagines herself singing with the choir, it’s a nice scene, with terrific, moving music, but I don’t think that it made any kind of dramatic sense. Movie’s got some great music, though.

And when her momma shows up with news of her poppa’s death, and the cause of death, Daniels throws in a fashion-shoot fantasy. Again, no dramatic sense. By this time, nine months later, Precious is in another place. In the book, she stays present in this scene until later, and then hears a song as if in a nightmare, and despairs. Some critics found this particular fantasy sequence silly and pathetic. Ouch! Not pathetic in the least, but woefully misplaced.

THE NEW BABY

The baby Abdul arrives at the 60-minute mark and spends one quarter of the movie as a newborn and one quarter as a nine-month-old. Is the baby anything more than a prop or mcguffin in the film? The reason I ask is that I’m remembering those days and weeks and months that follow the birth of a new child. The diaper changing, the packing and repacking of the diaper bag, the scheduling, the domination of the lives of others by the new arrival. Newborns can rule the roost (pace Trainspotting). Perhaps not at first when the little things just sleep and eat, but once they begin to develop their little baby managerial chops, watch out. (If that’s just my cultural experience speaking and in some cases a baby can arrive without making a ripple, then such a baby would automatically qualify as a prop in a movie, right?) Abdul keeps it strictly on the DL. In the book, when Precious learns that she’s sick, she doesn’t mention whether or not her baby is sick too, for 55 pages! It’s how you know it’s a prop; at least in the movie, that particular question is handled without delay, but in a way that allows the baby to remain a prop, not a character.

If a baby is there so that its prop double can be pitched onto the floor with a thump by the evil momma, and so that its prop double can tumble down the stairs with Precious’ prop double, whereas the scene doesn’t even occur in the book, does the baby still count as a character? If Abdul is there to help illustrate the protagonist’s psychic growth, does it still count as a person? Precious is spurred by Abdul’s birth to move away from her mother, to further bond with her classmates and teacher, to promise to teach her son all the things that she’s learned from a museum visit. She’ll hang colors. She’ll read to him every day. She’ll put up pictures. She’ll teach him to count. She won’t be like her mother. She’ll tell him that she’s not dumb. And, yes, now she’s starting to miss her first child, too. Meanwhile, she’s got a backpack, a bag, and a bundle to carry. It’s all a quibble, but it just made me smile to compare the little quiescent package onscreen to the semi-overwhelming actual presence of an actual nine-day-old. Whatever Precious does with Abdul offscreen, Daniels doesn’t let it interfere with the story. Like in those romantic comedies where the protagonists have high-powered jobs, which they are shown doing for a couple of frames in the beginning, until the plot kicks in, after which, not so much.

At the end of the movie, no denying, with Labelle singing It Took a Long Time on the soundtrack to jerk my tears, as Gabby walks down the street with Mongo and Abdul, I did notice that the boy was wearing some sort of rudimentary mittens that I thought were cool.

INSPIRATION OR EXPLOITATION?

I asked several folks leaving the theater what they thought of the movie, what they took away from it. Typical response: “Inspirational. Shows the triumph of the human spirit. That a girl with so much against her could keep going, could make it, even knowing that her days were numbered (this was 1987, when AIDs was a death sentence; no significant treatment), well, it tells you that we all have things to live for. That’s just the way it is in real life and if Precious could make it, anybody should be able to.” So is that the way it is in real life? A monster for a mother, an absent father who impregnates his daughter twice, total social isolation for the girl because of her tendency to trance out from the trauma – in the book, she explains how she would arrive at school, sit down at a desk in able to.”

Precious, illiterate, poor, abused by mom and dad – abused, reabused, and then chronically, habitually, serially, and with malfeasant malice aforethought abused – would go to school and sit in the back row paralyzed, and remain there until it was time to go home, urinating in place at least once a day. Her teachers, hearing the runoff, would at first be worried for her and caring, then pissed off (irony), while the principal would tell them, Just be glad she isn’t doing anything worse. And I guess we know what that would be – where was I? Oh, right, older than all the others in her class, socially isolated by substance and circumstance, Down syndrome child, HIV, all visited on one resilient individual – Faced with this, would or could one in a hundred, or one in a thousand, keep it together and win out in the end? In other words, this movie will inspire me how and to do what?

Does exploitation have to be volitional? And anyway, Daniels himself has said that he worried at Cannes that he was exploiting his people. What’s the difference between exploitation and art? The idea behind exploitation cinema is to amp up any or all of the dramatic aspects of the material to drag us into the theater. “Good” and “bad” considerations with respect to artistic elements are not an issue. As a consequence of this focus on increasing the drama, exploitation films are rarely worth much, artistically speaking. So why are folks going to the theater to see Precious? The awards buzz? Or is it because they’ve heard how raw it is? Mo’Nique going over the top? Themes of incest and classroom drama? Daniels says, No, I wanted the abuse in there because my father beat me. Tyler Perry says that his father beat him. Oprah says that she was abused. Mo’Nique was abused by her brother for years. Hey, they’re just getting the word out, they say. It’s not about making a buck, although Daniels does say that Perry is the only black success story in Hollywood (what about John Singleton?) and he’d like to be the second; he’d like to make some real money. Lack of control of the arsenal of dramatic weapons in the service of testifying is not the same as cynically employing those weapons on the cheap to turn a quick buck.

Also, let’s remember that “Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” is included in the movie’s title: not some potboiler, but Push, winner of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award, the Book of the Month Club Stephen Crane Award for the First Fiction Novelist Award, the Mind Book of the Year Award (UK), the New York Library Books for the Teen Age Award (pretty raw for teenagers?), nominated for the NAACP IMAGE Award for Outstanding Literary Work of Fiction. Fletcher wasn’t starting with chopped chicken liver here.

It’s confusing, though. Matt Damon. Mathematical genius. Straightened out by Robin Williams and Affleck and Minnie Driver and Stellan Skarsgård…wait, what, he was in that? The guy is everywhere… Small movie, introduced at the end of the year. Wins the Oscar. And Stallone in First Blood – just leave the dude alone, but no, beat on him and beat on him until he’s gotta win out. And now, Gabourey. Talented in math, according to Mr. Wicher. Able to learn to write, and write the award-winning Push, while having a baby and fending off Godzilla. How’m I supposed to know when they keeping it real and when they exploiting me? As I already said, talking about Fletcher dialing it back from the book: does that mean he’s going anti-exploit or does it mean that Daniels wants to cross over to the non-exploitable, no wait, the exploitable audience to increase tix sales? It’s a damned multidimensional spectrum of dramatic film values.

Is the movie lurid (i.e., causing shock or horror)? It’s hard to shock and horrify these days, but let’s just say yes. Armond White says that Daniels has lurid purposes. Is the film’s advertising and promotion sensationalist? Does it overstate the lurid subject matter (or a big star or special effects or sex or violence or romance), without reference to quality? Let’s say no. Checking a list of greatest exploitation films, I find Blue Velvet. The exploitation label doesn’t necessarily equal “poor quality.”

Should I take the exploitation arguments as straw men used by critics to display their choleric chops? “After this post-hip-hop freak show wowed Sundance last January, it now slouches toward Oscar ratification thanks to its powerful friends… Winfrey, Perry and Daniels make an unholy triumvirate. They come together at some intersection of race exploitation and opportunism. These two media titans — plus one shrewd pathology pimp — use Precious to rework Booker T. Washington’s early 20th-century manifesto Up From Slavery into extreme drama for the new millennium: Up From Incest, Child Abuse, Teenage Pregnancy, Poverty and AIDS. Regardless of its narrative details about class and gender, Precious is an orgy of prurience. All the terrible, depressing (not uplifting) things that happen to 16-year-old Precious recall that memorable All About Eve line, ‘Everything but the bloodhounds nipping at her rear-end’…Daniels is hoisting his freak flag.” [Armond White]

White spills a lot of negative ink making his point, which seems to be that we can’t trust the audience to appreciate the metaphorical hyperbole rampant in the movie. The audience he was sitting with at the New York Film Festival did not seem to get it, for example. But this seems sort of like hating on porn because it might turn some folks on. Armond, go watch Redacted with the Venice Film Festival audience again as punishment.

Not to beat this to death, but among the critics’ other concerns: “An impeccably acted piece of trash — an exploitation film that shamelessly strokes its audience’s sense of righteous indignation.” [Ed Gonzales] “In offering up their heroine’s misery for the audience’s delectation, they’ve created something uncomfortably close to poverty porn.” [Dana Stevens] “In their admiration of Precious’ strength and resilience, these people also implicitly accept the status quo.” [Raina Kelley, being glass-half-hey-it-shouldn’t-be-half-f**ing-anything!] “So to Sidibe, I say: Congratulations on Precious. And my hope is that you get a handle on your health.” [Alicia Villarosa, telling Gabby that she’s too damn fat] “Denigrates step-mothers, step-daughters, mice, pumpkins,…” Oops, that one’s about Disney’s Cinderella.

So hold on. Is Precious character-driven? Because if it is, then it’s probably not exploitative. Is that true or false? Whichever, yes, it is character-driven. Or at least, its main character is driven this way and that in an oscillatory way. “Precious” indubitably contains dramatic elements at a high pitch. Does this make the film an “exploitation” effort? Did I actually write “indubitably” and “at a high pitch”? Credit where credit is due! If somebody else wrote that and I cut and pasted it in my notes and then forgot that it wasn’t mine, my apologies to you, whoever you are. Plagiarism is an ugly thing. In fact, I apologize at a high pitch! But to answer the probably plagiarized question, no, it does not make the film an exploitation effort, because if, as in “King Lear,” for example, or “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” the drama arises organically out of the plot and mise en scene (in the larger sense of the spiritual meaning of the emotional atmosphere of the piece) and the truth of this world, then artistic considerations can be applied to it, and this is the case with “Precious.” I’m pretty sure I wrote that, because it sounds like pure bullshit, but Christ, who knows? If I did write it, I just made it up. But saying it another way, if mom cuts dad’s throat because it’s on a checklist, that’s exploitation; if she does it because in the course of the action he really, really, pissed her off, that’s art.

If not exploitation material, then…poverty porn? First there was plain old porn, then torture porn, food porn, and now poverty porn. Is non-porn porn just a way of labeling our habit of pushing limits out far enough to make them cease to exist? So that poverty porn is no more than one more “Whoa, what was that?” Slumdog – was that just cartoon Tom-and-Jerry Roadrunner poverty? What distinguishes porn from legitimate artistic screwing? Is it about how you, the viewer, react to it? The greater the engorgement of the nether bits, the less the artistic merit? Whereas the greater the engorgement of the brain, the greater the artistic merit? That is, there isn’t enough blood to go around, at least if you are normally endowed. (Male-centric argument alert.) So does this test apply to poverty, porn versus art? No, because we are dealing with the heart, hard vs soft, rather than the other parts, hard vs soft. If you heart softens, it’s art; if your heart hardens, it’s porn. How did my heart react to “Precious”? It definitely softened.

Reminder: the movie dials back the sex and violence. Though, talking about shock and horror, that upchuck scene – the volume, the quantity – I’m wondering if that wasn’t real? And how come in all my schooling I never had a teacher who was remotely like Paula Patton? Stand and deliver! What I’m asking is, is this exploitation, because where was MY teacher like that? I had, my word, how many teachers? But wait a sec, now that I think of it, my second grade teacher, she qualified. But we moved and moved and moved that year and I was in five different second-grade classes before ending up back where I started, by which time she was married and her name had changed and even in the second grade I knew what that meant. If I ever get a chance, I’d like to ask Daniels how he directed Paula Patton; for those of you who have seen the movie, she had those weird pauses throughout; let me know if you know why she was doing that.

I did work with a couple of social workers who matched Carey in the movie, though. The eligibility workers were all normal human beings, but there were a couple of social workers who existed on a whole different plane of Paula Pattonesque zonedoutatude. In several interviews I’ve seen, Carey has been at great pains to explain that she isn’t that ugly, thus ruining a good thing.

Did Daniels cast Patton and Carey, glam, in part to contrast them with Gabby? No, he wanted Helen Mirren first for the social-worker part; his casting is all about personal connections, with Mirren, with Carey, with Mo’Nique. He made Carey promise to scour off the makeup before coming to work. She tried to sneak in a little blush once, without success. A little shadow was added under her eyes and on her upper lip, as befits a hard-working social worker. Returning to the question of imputing thoughts to the unspeaking, I had Carey in the place of the angels, unlike some others who took her as overworked, numbed-out, and on some level or other indifferent.

WEIGHT

So much for the mostly fat-blind/weight-blind portion of this review. Where does the protagonist’s avoirdupois fit in? Most descriptions of Precious Jones, in book and movie, include the word “obese” or the word “fat.” Contrariwise, I have yet to encounter a description of Gabourey Sidibe as fat. “Comfortable with herself,” yes; fat, no… Uh oh. As I mention below, I just ran across “hippopotamus-like.”

For the record, Mo’Nique runs 260, Gabourey 325.

So answer this. If I describe Precious with the words “illiterate,” “welfare recipient,” “sexually abused,” and “fat,” what is the relationship among these four words in your mind, or in the mind of the average viewer? How does that relationship differ according to who the viewer is? Why is that fourth adjective so often joined to the other three in movie reviews? Is that fourth adjective, the adjective of shape, tainted by its three neighbors? How is it tainted in text by its close association in other sentences with “unmarried teenage mother of two,” Down syndrome,” and “incestual abuse”?

Answer: unconscious guilt by association.

Let it be noted that Gabourey Sidibe does not wear a fat suit in the movie, but she did get some pregnancy padding in front. Sapphire has said that she made Precious fat as a dramatic device to increase her isolation. Isolation from her peers, we presume, but does that obesity also isolate her from some of those of us watching? I haven’t heard Gabourey herself described as isolated. Sapphire is not fat. Daniels has said that he viewed fat people as unclean and not very smart, but that he has a heavy sister who always has a line of men waiting, and that since making this movie, his heart has changed, and he sees fat in a whole new, Shallow Hal light.

I’ve let this review just sit around, and in the meantime, Gabourey in interviews has said the same thing: Hey, this could all be about a thin girl. Couldn’t it? Huh?
Check out Mo’Nique in Phat Girlz, if you haven’t seen it, for an anodyne to the fat-lashing on display here.

In the book, Precious is big, but her mother is bigger, adding to the domination, her mom making Precious eat, beating her up. In the movie, not so much. Gabby looks like she could handle Mo’Nique ok if she got her wind up.

RACE

So much for the mostly color-blind portion of this review. If issues of race have crossed your mind more than once or twice while reading the text above, don’t blame me. Comes now the portion where a writer of one racial background contemplates the racial elements of an artistic creation suffused with the spirit of a racial group not his own. In addition to Sapphire, Fletcher, Daniels, Gabourey, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Carey (has a black grandfather), Kravitz, and Mary J. Blige on the soundtrack, Oprah and Tyler Perry got their names added to this project as well. That’s a black movie. (However, the first $8 million for the movie was coughed up by Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, who are not African-American. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn and editor Joe Klotz aren’t either.)

I was raised in the Jim Crow South, where, for example, little white kids avoided black drinking fountains in the same way that they would avoid an unclean toilet (well, except that the country boys would take comics to read in the outhouse whereas town and village boys, when they encountered an outhouse, got in and got out as quickly as they could, due to the black widows down in the hole), so I figure that the deeper regions of my cortex have probably been permanently compromised by that growing-up experience, for which reason I misdoubt my judgment when dealing with subjective matters of race. Nevertheless, questions remain to be asked here.

But my God, has it come to this? I’ve got to pussyfoot? How’m I going to write my Raisin in the Sun review? How’m I going to criticize Wong Kar-Wai when I need to?

Does this movie reinforce outdated black stereotypes? Daniels has said that he felt a little embarrassed at Cannes on that account, felt that he didn’t want to exploit his people, but then decided that post-Obama, it was ok. Variety: “Claireece’s face is a monument to the racial crimes of the past 400 years.” Huh? Wha? The movie opens with Precious sitting in a classroom full of faces, mostly African-American. Were they all monuments, or just her? Did all the rest of them fail to board the racial-crimes boat? Or is Claireece’s physiognomy lurking back there like a damn Easter-Island statue, a historical reminder as the rest of us move on? But no, yeah, let me look across my office here at Ben’s black face. Yes, hmm, yes… It could be a monument to racial crimes, too, even though Ben came out head of his Harvard Law class and his grandfather owns an island and everything on, in, under, and above it, and the foothills all around. But Ben’s got a receding hairline too young, and somebody broke his nose playing football.

Repeating a paragraph from above, if I describe Precious with the words “illiterate,” “welfare recipient,” “sexually abused,” and “black,” what is the relationship among these four words, in your mind? Why is this fourth adjective so often joined to the other three in movie reviews? Is that fourth adjective, the adjective of race, tainted by its three neighbors?

Answer again: unconscious guilt by association.

If the protagonist is obese, illiterate, poor, and abused, and happens also to be black – blacker than anyone else in the movie, in fact – is that a casting happenstance of no import, or a statement by the director? If a statement, what statement? Sapphire, Fletcher, and Daniels are, inescapably, telling a tale about those to whom they have cultural connections. Daniels in particular goes on about coming from the ghetto, even though he didn’t. Sapphire has said that she made Precious as unattractive as possible in order to rule out any romantic
considerations and to isolate her as much as possible. Naturally I immediately googled “Gabourey’s boyfriend” but got
no hits. (Later: while this review languished, yes, now she’s got a boyfriend. And she’s wearing Tadashi Shoji. “Ashley Olsen hugged me for a long time – like rubbing my back and everything – and said, ‘I am so proud of you.’ How cute is that?…God, there are so many hot dudes in Hollywood right now. I’m such a fanny, fanny girl. Bradley Cooper. How hot is he?…I heard a rumor that President Obama knew who I was. You know, because Oprah is all up in his shizz, so I think that he might be aware of me.” Fame has come to Gabby. And she’s now saying some of the same stuff I say here.) But I don’t remember a single instance anywhere, in the trades, in reviews, anywhere, where Gabby herself is described as unattractive, or even as “fat” or blacker than most. Harper’s uses “overweight.” Note: Daniels has said that he is prejudiced against African Americans darker than he is. Precious’ take: “She lighter then some Spanish womens but I know she black. I can tell. It’s something about being a nigger ain’t color.”

So, “fat” and “blacker” are to be taken as pejorative?

A sixteen-year-old finds herself facing adulthood with two children and no resources. She is bound by her illiteracy, poverty, and mental confusion, caused by years of parental abuse and educational neglect. Now, by her own efforts, fortitude, intelligence, and luck, she takes steps toward, what, improvement, a better life, self realization, spiritual and intellectual growth, hope. Is the message then “Even if you’re fat, poor, illiterate, and black, there is still hope?” What’s wrong with that message? What if you’re slender, middle-class, literate? Does color still matter? How about fat, poor, illiterate, and brown, yellow, red, or white? Help me out here. Is the message: One hundred and fifty years of continued racism by the white majority following the end of the Civil War has led to Precious’ condition, but, bad as that condition may be, it is not irreversible in a case or two, here and there? Does it matter that the teacher who helps Precious is cafe au lait in color? Daniels take on the black question is to say that the movie reflects his own life, in the sense that his uncle killed people and all black people are not good.

Would this sort of racial shorthand still be true if used in a movie about any other race, or is it a black-only thing? Would I let my own race off the hook when encountering a race tag in conjunction with, say, “trashy,” “cheap,” and “drunk”? Do several centuries, or millenia, of racial injustice and persecution and immigration affect the answer? Basically, does Black bring anything specific to this movie? If the author, playwright, director, and stars were all white Iowans, would the story change? We get a snapshot of Harlem and one aspect of life there, as we might of Omaha, say; there are without doubt economically challenged areas in Iowa.

My guess: race doesn’t matter in this movie, in any of the senses I’ve just mentioned, even though racism in plenty still exists in the U.S.

It’s a black movie, though, and a New York Harlem movie. Precious’ alternative school is located in the Hotel Theresa, which was a cultural center back in the ’50s and ’60s. The hotel is located at the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard (7th Avenue and 125th Street). It was the first major hotel to accept black guests (true or false?). Fidel Castro stayed there when he came to speak at the U.N. James Baldwin said that a black person growing up in Harlem doesn’t hate white people, just doesn’t know who they are. Precious doesn’t leave her neighborhood until she’s sixteen, when she takes her first trip downtown to the incest survivors’ meeting. The movie is idiom-strong; the language will age out, not to the detriment of the film, we hope.

In the theater where I saw Precious the second time, the audience was two-thirds white, one-third black. Whenever Mo’Nique did something especially horrific, the two-thirds cringed and the one-third laughed. One possible explanation for this reactive bifurcation: the white audience was all oh my god life in the ghetto, whereas the black audience recognized an over-the-top fairy tale and savored Mo’Nique’s rendition of the wicked mother in it. Extreme white reaction is to be found in a number of right-wing tea-bagger reviews of Precious: “Aha! Just as I thought! The movie should be re-titled ‘Better Off Dead.'” No sense of humor.

While I was procrastinating: “Worse than Precious itself was the ordeal of watching it with an audience full of patronizing white folk at the New York Film Festival, then enduring its media hoodwink as a credible depiction of black American life. A scene such as the hippopotamus-like teenager climbing a K-2 incline of tenement stairs to present her newborn, incest-bred baby to her unhinged virago matriarch, might have been met with howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem’s Magic Johnson theater. Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation, whereas too many white film habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority —and relief — it allows them to feel. Some people like being conned.” [Armond again – Well, Armond, I’ve got one data point that says you got that right.]

I spent a couple of years working in AFDC back in the 70s. One client that I remember out of thousands was a young woman who came in for the first time to provide some verifications or other – maybe she needed a social security number for her unborn baby or a note from her mother that she was paying rent. Anyway, the young woman showed up at the branch office where I was working that day, listened to me for a second or two, and interrupted to say, “why are you putting me through all these changes?” (Slang at the time for “Why are you hassling me?” Seems like I don’t hear about “changes” much anymore.) She was third or fourth generation in the program and her grandmother and mother both had active cases at the time. I said, “It’s just that every once in a while you’re required to update the proof that you’re eligible.” “Proof that I’m eligible?” she said. “I’ve been proving that I’m eligible since I was born. When do I get to stop?”

GENDER

In addition to these questions about body type and race, what is this movie – scripted, directed, shot, and edited by dudes – saying about women? Everyone in the movie is female, except for a bit part for a math teacher and Kravitz showing up briefly as a male nurse. And a glimpse of the dad in a fantasy, of course. And a couple of dudes hanging on the street, ready to push Precious down just when she’s getting excited about alternative school.

Sisters keeping a sister down, helping a sister up, men out there somewhere, mostly just f**king things up.

“I made this movie for my girls,” says Daniels, referring to the actors, I think. “People read so much into Precious. But at the end, it’s just this girl, and she’s trying to live.”

Brother helping a sister up.

I wondered during the movie why Precious several times acted mean to a young girl in her building. It’s so that later, in the final scenes, when Precious writes that she’d like to be thin, light-skinned, with long hair, and Ms. Rain writes back that she, Precious, is beautiful just as she is, and she looks in the mirror to confirm it, she can signal her complete transformation to the good by passing on her magic scarf to that young girl (who now has a black eye and a mean, heavyset, Mo’Nique knockoff of a mom) she had blown off before.

Sister helping a sister up.

WRAPUP

“Did it make you cry?”

Now, some will say, well, it was horrific, but I didn’t connect to Precious on an emotional level. Yes. That was me the first time. It’s like a ferris wheel. The first time is all about the view; the second time is about the person sitting next to you. The first time through the movie, during the ups I dreaded the downs that I knew were coming, cause the drama was constructed that way and everybody knew it. It’s like if you went to the Roman Coliseum in the old days and watched one gladiator kill another and you don’t connect to it on an emotional level because you’ve seen it before, but then you go home and watch it again on the Roman Empire Sports Channel where you get some backstory on the contestants, and then watch the fight again in slo-mo and even though you know how it’s going to come out, the closeups and the interviews with the dead guy’s mom and dad and wife or wives and kids and grizzled old Burgess Meredith trainer… well, you just get choked up a little.

When Precious leaves her mother’s home – or flees from it, with household objects bouncing off her, halfway through the movie, some energy goes out of the film; the second half isn’t as tight or harrowing as the first. Same as Snow White needs the evil queen, Precious needs Mo’Nique. Fortunately mama returns twice, to drop the bomb needed to counteract Paula Patton’s sweetness and light, and then to perform her Oscar-winning monolog.

Observations:

– With this performance, Mo’Nique joins the Ellen Burstyn Look-how-bad-I-can-look-without-makeup-or-anything Requiem club.

– Those who had problems with this movie all seemed to take it literally, but I just watched So weit die Füße tragen (2001), in which an escaped Nazi prisoner walks across Siberia and then takes a hard right to Iran (long walk, took years), and that was a true story, so maybe this isn’t a fairy tale after all.

– Gay issues get a nod, as Precious puzzles over a lesbian classmate that she likes plus her lesbian teacher dandling her son, vs her learned prejudices – courtesy of Sapphire and Daniels, both professedly bi.

– Workfare takes a hit.

– “Oscar Bait” – A film released during the last two months of the year with a big cast and “important” subject matter to attract the attention of the Academy. (Urban dictionary)

– Favorite passage in Push: “I want to live so bad. Mama remind me I might not. I got this virus in my body like cloud over sun. Don’t know when, don’t know how, maybe hold it back a long long time, but one day it’s gonna rain.”

– Book and movie together, greater than the sum of their parts.

– There are an awful lot of homeless, addicted, and mentally-ill folks out there and that’s no fable.

At the same time that I saw Precious, I also saw Sugar and Le Grande Voyage, two movies that present the human condition in a world full of humans of many types, no bad guys but plenty of poverty, struggle, and spirit, with the gentle but demanding message that we are each a part of some greater whole, from which we take but to which we owe. Switching from the grace of these films to Precious, where the glass is more than half empty, prompts me to reopen the question of exploitation. I’m thinking that Fletcher the playwright backed off Push as much as he could, perhaps in search of the soul found in these other movies, perhaps just writing like a middle-class guy. A theory: the less that happens in a movie, the deeper the meaning, down to a certain minimum of happeningness, beyond which meaning begins to fade away again. Examples: Independence Day – a lot happens; it means nothing. Le Grande Voyage – a lot of driving; arguments; humanity; deep meaning. Sleep – the Andy Warhol film in which John Giorno sleeps for five hours; it means nothing. And Precious? Stuff happens, maybe a little bit too much stuff; but meaning is there, plenty of meaning. Is the story creditable? Not relevant. This isn’t about real life. The writer, screenwriter, and director have constructed a parable or folktale or work of art meant to demonstrate a triumph of the spirit, and that it does. Question: can a parable contain as much meaning as life itself onscreen?

I’m personally awarding Gabby and Mo’Nique prizes for their work in this movie. Oscar nominations will surely follow. Mo’Nique does such a great monolog at the end of the movie that several folks I talked to said that she showed her humanity and her previous actions could now be understood if not forgiven. I noted the names of those who said this, as I plan to borrow money from them soon. There are stretches in the book and movie that make that evaluation impossible for me, including Mo’Nique’s manipulative behavior during that monolog (in the book monolog, she allows Carl the daddy to remove the Pampers and proceed; Daniels didn’t make Mo’Nique go that far). Sapphire wrote the mama and Daniels filmed the mama as such a monster that no sad monolog can save her. But! That final scene in the welfare office should end with Mo’Nique standing up and accepting the statuette. It’s designed for that. Even better than Viola Davis’ monolog, nominated for similar reasons.

The final scene, with Precious carrying Abdul and holding little Mongo by the hand, walking down a crowded street with the faintest smile, Labelle singing It Took a Long Time, yeah, I teared up a little. And then the dedication: “For Precious Girls Everywhere.”

One Response

  1. It was good, just didn’t convey enough emotions like it did for some.

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