Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
d. Lee Daniels / USA / 2009 / 110 mins
Viewed at: Screen 3 @ Cinema City (Norwich, UK)
It’s not often that, as a filmgoer, you encounter a truly strong black, female character, particularly one who is not weighed down by mawkish sentimentality or, worse, unashamed caricature. Then again the fact that Claireece “Precious” Jones is black, or female (or overweight) hardly matters, because it’s not often you encounter a character this strong, full stop. And it is, undoubtedly, the true strength of Precious as a character that propels Precious as a film.
We might put this strength down to source material – Sapphire’s Push – which channels first-person stream of consciousness into a character that leaps from the page as a sheer force of nature. We could put its successful translation down to Geoffrey S. Fletcher’s nuanced script, or Lee Daniels’ even-handed direction. Or we could, as many have justifiably done, laud Gabourey Sidibe’s astounding performance in bringing the novel’s force of nature to vivid life. But of course, like any great film, the truth lies in the sum of its parts.
Despite assurances that Precious was somehow ‘different’, my eagerness to see it was tempered by the fear of yet another generic ‘uplifting’ story about impoverished kids on the mean streets of inner-city USA, as well as the knowledge that the Lee Daniels-produced Monster’s Ball (2001) – another ‘strong black female’ literary adaptation – was thoroughly overrated, suffering as it did from star gravitas and a hokey, cause and effect narrative.
But I needn’t have worried, Precious unfolds at a dizzying, unrelenting pace, only lapsing into portentous melodrama or stagnated exposition on a couple of isolated occasions. And whilst it doesn’t sit in complete opposition to the old ‘star goes ugly’, Oscar-baiting routine, a dour-looking Mariah Carey and brutish, Oscar-winning Mo’Nique both offered resolutely understated, genuine performances.
Fletcher and Daniels have constructed the world of Precious in such a way that judgments, moral or otherwise, are left entirely up to the characters. Ordinarily, a film would attempt to make a point about Precious’ girth, but the only people allowed to comment upon it here are the girl herself, and those criticising her, from kids on the street to her own mother.
Futhermore, rather than the usual ‘oh, isn’t it great that this fat black girl can overcome her weight/colour/gender and prevail against all odds’-narrative that might dominate such material, Daniels and Co. present a much more naturalistic, nuanced approach to the tale.
And yet, the confrontation between hyper-reality and surreal flights of fancy is a key pivot point here, ensuring that the film rises well above the old ‘ghetto child makes good’ model often ascribed to such harrowing, but ultimately uplifting, films. Precious is uplifting, of course, but it remains tethered by its performances and the balanced approach to its narrative.
Between this tethered reality and the films parallel embrace of surrealist fantasy, Precious shares a lot of ground with Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Both films feature a strong, young female character at the absolute centre of the narrative, who charts her own course as she deals with physical and emotional abuse at home. The circumstances of each girl differs wildly, of course, but the ruptures between social realism, fantasy and hyperreality are vastly analogous.
Also central to both Precious and Fish Tank, is an unwillingness to fall back on the usual cause and effect tropes of social realist cinema, an inability to apportion blame, and a shared embrace of the complexity of modern society and the way in which contemporary Western ideals of ambition, desire and consumption place undue pressure on us all – rich, poor and in between – from the housing estates of Essex to the streets of Harlem.