Comfortable and Furious


It’s a distinctly American phenomenon to indulge in the nobility of suffering, as if by standing aside to avoid the television heaved by your mother down a dozen flights of stairs were anything other than a momentary escape from the inevitable. For Clareece “Precious“ Jones, the central figure of Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire, an unfortunate title that says more about the grabby influence of lawyers than anything resembling coherence, such an incident is but one of dozens of daily humiliations, insults, threats, and attacks that are meant to sanctify this poor child of Harlem, circa 1987. For two hours, she is verbally abused to a degree usually reserved for the shadows, but throughout, she maintains a blank, dehumanized stare, less to convey character than a concentrated effort to fulfill the film’s overriding theme of transcendence and uplift through quiet fortitude.
Precious must endure an hourly gauntlet of fire, pain, and grief so as to emerge whole; an angel borne of near incomprehensible tragedy. At least that’s the hope. Instead, the less discriminating audiences — mine, for example, which featured a half dozen screeching infants, several defiantly unanswered cell phones, and at least one deafening roar of “You get her, Precious!” — will be fooled into thinking this is anything but the obvious: ghetto porn, served chilly and condescending in turn, offering AIDS, retarded infants (named Mongo!), and unemployment as exiting fanfare. Hell, she would have walked into her own private sunset, provided a place like Harlem ever had any.
Surely anything sanctioned, funded, and pushed like vials of crack by the one-two punch of Oprah and Tyler Perry has empathy as its primary mission, but where in the process did these mega-millionaires ever conclude that America wanted to watch poor blacks eat each other alive? While it would be absurd to throw up trouble-free visions of the African American experience and expect any recognition from audiences, what purpose does it serve to reduce black life to an unending string of pathologies? If nuance, subtlety, or depth were at all present, we might have something like A Raisin in the Sun, a play (and movie) that granted agency in the midst of larger social context. Instead, we have Precious’ mother Mary (Mo’Nique), a character so one-note and ridiculous that she’s closer to Jason Voorhees than a flesh and blood woman. Even here, we apparently need someone to root against.
When she’s not screaming, making demands, or collapsed in her chair watching television, she’s throwing shit around the apartment with nostrils flaring, or dancing in the first and last skin-tight outfit I ever want to see hugging someone built like a Sorry game piece left out in the sun. And when she at last rests from her unending tirades, she’s scheming, conniving, and manipulating her way to the next welfare check. She can work, but won’t, and only keeps Precious around to fund her cigarette and pig’s feet habit. Add to that her shrugging lack of concern when her boyfriend, a cipher himself reduced to a few flashes of sweaty torso and demonic eyes, repeatedly rapes Precious despite the fact that she’s also his daughter. One would think Ms. Winfrey wanted us to turn away from black America.


Amidst this melodramatic, exploitive stew of sodomy, incest, and Reaganesque welfare queenery is the expected light at the end of the tunnel, here in the unsurprising image of a teacher named Blu Rain (Paula Patton). We know she’s heroic and wise and Christ-like because she’s both beautiful and light-skinned, as are all those who offer assistance to the dark, mysterious Precious. Ms. Rain is also a lesbian, which would normally put her at arm’s length in such a tale (Precious informs us that her mother believes homosexuals are evil, though it’s important to add that she also thinks she’s safe from AIDS because her man never fucked her up the butt), but it’s a new day, and as with so much else, what was once a sign of deviance, now connotes inherent decency. It remains unanswered how Precious is heroic when her every new day is provided by an agent of the state.

Blu conducts a class for dropouts and the like, which is where Precious ends up after being thrown out of school for getting pregnant a second time (needless to say, this act makes the school official a symbol of monstrous evil). Without pause, the Dangerous Minds script takes it from here, whereby drug addicts, teenage mothers, and savage illiterates are, after a few winks of encouragement from a pretty Mr. Chips stand-in, transformed into budding poets, dreamers, and huggable eccentrics. No prizes for guessing that this same motley crew goofs and gabs its way to the hospital as Precious is whisked through the halls by Lenny Kravitz. Sure, she’s 16, pretty much homeless, broke, and a criminal (earlier, she stole a bucket of chicken – no lie), but don’t tell her she can’t complain about a hospital meal being paid for by Joe Taxpayer.

And so we beat on: a snapshot of the world’s most chaotic and unproductive “English” class here, Mo’Nique growling like a house afire there, with a tear running down Mariah Carey’s makeup-free cheek to close the deal. And yes, when the diva first appeared on screen, the audience chatter turned on a dime from calls for Mo’Nique’s fleshy arm on a platter to a uniform buzz of “Isn’t that…”, as if they were picking out some random street bum from a lineup. The woman behind me had to have a second scene with the musical mega-star to be sure, but rest assured, she was finally convinced by her companion. Her turn as a sassy social worker might allow us to finally forgive and forget Glitter, but “not sucking” is not exactly the same as preparing a speech for Oscar night.


Precious gets through her hellish existence via the fantasy sequence, which is pretty much standard for all victims of rape and frying pans to the skull. Every time things get bad, she retreats to a glamorous world of high fashion, paparazzi, and red carpets. At times, when life is at its worst, she’ll become part of a movie, as when she “walks” into the Sophia Loren vehicle Two Women. Or when she has visions of the tank man in Tiananmen Square on a classroom wall, even though the event is two years in the future, meaning that clairvoyance is apparently a byproduct of anal. There’s much to loathe here, but these scenes are especially inept, given how awkwardly they are meant to break the mood. Nervous laughter tittered throughout the theater, but I was simply aghast at how absurdly unnecessary they were, both at conveying Precious’ inner life and furthering the story. Surely Hollywood has moved beyond these cloying devices as a means to express a character’s desire to escape. In Precious, they’re treated as a revelation.

There will be the expected calls for Gabby Sidibe to collect her prizes for her performance as the much put-upon Precious, but sitting around looking sweaty and sad should not be enough to turn heads. We’re told she’s a good girl waiting to bust out, and that she has sweetness in her soul, but such traits are never fully expressed by an actress looking more lost than forlorn. Thankfully, she never challenges credibility with an unexpected burst of articulate rage, but she pretty much lumbers along from scene to scene; functional, but not heart-rending. She’s asked to carry the weight of a thousand symbolic gestures, when it’s all she can do to keep her eyes open. One is sorry for her, but what can be done? Or maybe it’s the fact that once again, a cinematic Job is told to push on solely because she’s loved by her baby boy. In all, it’s an exercise in voyeuristic disgust, rubbing our noses in stereotype and racial ugliness, yet damning us for not gnashing our teeth in outrage. It wants to have it both ways, and ends up with neither.