Precious is kind of an asshole. She steals, responds to insults using her fists, is casually homphobic and repeatedly rejects a much younger girl who lives in her building and clearly idolizes her. At the opening of the movie named after this character, she does not have custody of her child, a little girl with Down syndrome she refers to as "Mongo." By the end, she has custody of her daughter and newly born son, news that she has tested positive for HIV, an eighth-grade reading level and no way in the foreseeable future to support her family beyond government assistance. Lee Daniels' movie ends on a weirdly upbeat note, with Precious walking the streets of Harlem with her two children as LaBelle's sunny "It Took a Long Time" blares. It's made to feel like a triumph -- this woman, having now turned her back on her furiously abusive mother and invested herself in education, for the first time in her 16 years on earth has hope -- but really, this giant of a woman is taking mere baby steps.
I'm not trying to beat a beat horse (or obese black girl), just noting my surprise at the work the viewer must put in to actually like Precious throughout the film. I remember liking her even less when I read Push upon its release (I worked at a bookstore and when it came in, had an immediate sense that it was a reimagining of The Color Purple, a book I adore, and found that I was mostly right). Certainly, the movie's job is to make us feel for Precious and understand why she acts the way she does, but there is a surprising lack of hand-holding in the process. Besides an angel of a teacher (Ms. Blue Rain, played by Paula Patton) and a devil of a mother (Mary, as possessed by Mo'Nique), there are no distinct good or bad guys in Precious' world -- just people doing what they can to survive, by whatever shade of gray necessary. (Since I won't get to do so elsewhere, I want to note that Mo'Nique's first-scene monologue that's propelled with a growing sense of anger, as she becomes more enraged by each sentence she spits at Precious, is as much of a force of nature as I've ever seen on film. I don't even feel the need to illustrate how amazing Gabourey Sidibe is during every second of this film.)
After its rapturous response on the festival circuit, Precious received something of a backlash as its release approached. There is a certain faction of the critic population that feels it is obvious, emotional porn, which preys on the sympathy of guilty whites. I'm not really interested in picking through the minutiae, but I do wonder what would have made these people happy. (Just not telling this character's story?) Any serious movie about the lives of black people risks a pandering following, but I'm pretty sure that Sapphire didn't write her book for white people. I'm pretty sure that Lee Daniels wasn't thinking, "All my peoples up in Connecticut are going to flip their shit when they catch my Ntozake Shange reference!" I'm pretty sure that the kind of political correctness those are supposedly exhibiting when they gush about Precious is skin-deep, that your average guilty liberal isn't going to marvel at the breadth of representation of women of color that's going on here. I don't remember the last time I saw a movie that offered so many vivid depictions of black women. (Good Hair, maybe? But then, that's nonfiction.) The all-women alternative-school class Precious attends is full of young women at various phases of their lives with various motivations and levels of humor and cleverness. (Regardless of the state of her literacy, Precious, too, has a wit that sneaks up on you, particularly via her matter-of-fact observations. My favorite comes after watching Ms. Rain and her girlfriend interact: "They talk like TV channels I don't watch.") And then there's the nurturing, gently queer, messianic Ms. Rain, and her boho girlfriend, and the sister-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold Cornrows (played mind-bogglingly well by Sherri Shepherd), and the concerned-to-the-point-of-judgmental Mrs. Weiss (played by Mariah Carey, whose rave reviews most likely result in her being graded on a curve -- that a singer of her stature could dress down and perform competently feels like a revelation compared to similar turns by the Madonnas, Whitneys and Janets of the world). Sure, we can look at Mo'Nique's wellfare-abusing abuser as a stereotype. Maybe even the uneducated, obese survivor from the ghetto that is Precious is one as well. But the movie gives us several alternatives to those types -- we just have to be open to seeing them.
Granted, it's hard to look past the abuse suffered by Precious via Mary. Some find it ridiculous and outrageous. "Ridiculous" and "outrageous," of course, are also very good words to describe the concept of child abuse. To telegraph the hope-destroying atrocity of child abuse, anything less than a pummel to the face is letting the viewer off easy. I love that there is a movie getting so much attention that takes a very explicit look at abuse, because abuse is so readily swept under the rug. Maybe this is the finest consequence of the oversharing turn that our culture has taken: shamelessness has use beyond navel-gazing. The more we talk about this stuff, the more we understand. It's pretty hard to heal when you're embarrassed and I think a film like Precious can help diminish that embarrassment, however slightly.
Besides the hypothetical, Precious' practical purpose fills the screen -- it posits an obese, dark-skinned black woman as a cinematic hero. Even at its most basic quota filling, we cannot underestimate the value of this fact alone. Call me optimistic, but I believe that pop culture has tremendous influence on larger culture's attitude, and any curdle in the homogeneity is hope for tolerance. On casting the role of Precious, Daniels recently told Entertainment Weekly: "I started off by calling Hollywood agents and realized that they don't have these types." Of course not. To escape the bleakness of her situation, Precious frequently daydreams of being a star and thus loved by all. The most beautiful thing about this movie is that for this fleeting pop-culture moment, that dream is a reality.