I have to admit that I went to see Precious expecting, and wanting to like it. Maybe not ‘like’ actually, but enjoy/recommend/understand. With a vague understanding of the plot and the knowledge that Mariah did more than phone in her performance from a 100ft winnebago, any film which captures the female experience of urban poverty, abuse and illiteracy would be fine by me.
Telling the story of a black Harlem teenage girl, who has two children by her father as a result of incestuous rape, who is abused emotionally, sexually and physically by her ‘welfare mother’ and who later discovers she is HIV positive, Precious magnifies the horrors of the ‘black grease’ (Precious’ words) existence of the American underclass on to a big screen, with cut aways to music videos, red carpets and the much coveted ‘light skinned boyfriend’. And just to make the whole thing even more unseemingly, Precious is morbidly obese. Not Charlize Theron in Monster obese, but saucepans of sizzling fat, supersize buckets of fried chicken, cartons of cigarettes fat. Oh yes, and there’s body hair. Female body hair. Unshaved armpits and thick forests of leg hair. You’re not in Hollywood anymore.
It probably wouldn’t be up for any Oscars if there wasn’t a light at the end of this ‘tunnel’. The light coming in the form of the hardtalking, cynical social worker played by Mariah Carey, and the improbably beautiful teacher at Precious’ alternative school, played by Paula Patton. Together it is these women who gather around Precious, encouraging confessions of the horrors of her homelife, helping her to find out ‘what she’s really good at’ and contributing to the final scene where Precious walks out of a meeting with her mother defiantly taking on the world.
There are numerous shocking scenes of brutality – shots of a sweaty, thrusting groin as Precious is raped by her father, a new born baby being thrown to the ground by a jealous mother (Mo’Nique, who deserves ten Oscars, incidentally) and Precious disappearing into her mother’s bedroom to ‘make mummy feel better’. The language is laden with ‘cuss words’ and the syntax is non existent. Precious’ self loathing is encapsulated in scenes where her reflection becomes a thin white girl, or where a light skinned boy kissing her transpires to be a stray dog.
But what maybe is more shocking, is the response the film has received. The New York Times Magazine front cover shouted ‘The Audacity of Precious’, asking ‘Is America ready for a movie about an obese Harlem girl raped and impregnated by her abusive father’, the New York Times couldn’t believe the film attacked the piety of African-American motherhood and Time magazine intoned it was ‘Too powerful for tears’. Powerful words, right? Well, it doesn’t deserve this reverence. Even though the standard of acting was incredible and even though the screenwriting seamlessly translated the novel, this film does not deserve these eulogies. And why? Because for all of the risks Lee Daniels has taken, Precious is not a risky film. It seems that to counteract the at times difficult viewing, he’s peppered the cast with ‘out of their comfort zone’ pop stars, and to make the aesthetic easier on the eye, added in a light skinned, professional lesbian couple (they drink wine, have art hanging on their walls etc). There are even light weight comic moments with Precious’ classmates. With the film ending on a relative ‘happy ever after’, all the nasty taboos the audience are forced to watch are counteracted neatly by the end. It’s all okay, sigh of relief etc.
There’s just one taboo which the film doesn’t address; Precious’ size. Surely the mother of two young children would be encouraged to be healthy? Surely these professionals would notice the way Precious’ body functions as both a prison and a sanctuary – the way her relationship with food is as abusive as her parental relationships? Can’t Precious be freed from isolation, abuse, illiteracy and obesity? Apparently not. For all the wounds that are healed, for all the problems discussed – Precious can’t look like the slim Patton or Carey, she still has to look like a victim.
It will be the film which doesn’t leave it’s heroine trapped that will deserve these accolades.