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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Precious is Great Melodrama

I have to start this piece by saying that I’m a young, white male.  I’ve lived in New York City since the early part of this decade.  I have no idea what it is like to be a sixteen-year-old black girl in 1987 Harlem.  I cannot comment with any authority about whether or not the story told in Precious is an accurate portrait of the reality of being an overweight African-American girl; I can only say whether or not the movie makes it feel real. In other words, I cannot relate to the story no matter how hard I try; all I can do is empathize with the main character.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can say that I think that Precious is an effective film for what it is.  And what it is, more than anything, is melodrama.  It can be graphic and disturbing, but it is a tearjerker at its heart and it hews closely to the standard formula of many melodramas.

It’s a story about an illiterate, overweight black girl who has two children – one of whom has Down syndrome – as a result of being raped repeatedly by her father.  Her mother abuses her physically – frying pans to the head – and sexually as well, not to mention the barrage of hurtful insults that she hurls her daughter’s way. Precious spends her days getting picked on by kids at school or while walking down the street, then goes home to get berated by her mother and cook her dinner. Everything that could go wrong in the life of Precious, well, it goes wrong.

But because we are traveling in the territory of melodrama, we are given an angelic teacher named Blue Rain who wants badly to not only help Precious read, but to fix her life.  There is also a social worker who seems interested in helping Precious put her life together and a male nurse who shows up from time to time to say nice things and her classmates at her new alternative school that care about her.  What the film is doing is giving Precious a support system so that when terrible things happen to her, we know that she has various safety nets to count on.

I must say that while I felt effected by the film and thought director Lee Daniels did an admirable job making us care about the fate of Precious, I also found it to be a bit too much.  After a while, I found myself inured to Precious’ struggles and even though I desperately wanted to cry, I didn’t shed a single tear. It was too much, she was too pathetic and pitiful to be real to me.  I know some people might say, “hey, these things really happen, there are really people like this out there,” but the thing is, just because it really happens doesn’t mean it feels real.

Instead, I felt like I was being given the story of a martyr.  Precious is beaten and beaten and beaten and beaten (and beaten) and I said to myself, “Precious is Jesus.”  She is being beaten and punished for the sins of mankind.  (spoiler alert!)

By the time we find out that she’s HIV-positive on top of everything else, I was even more sure of my supposition; she’s not only being beaten, she’s dying for our sins. (spoiler end) Not to mention, her mother’s name is … Mary.

I found myself comparing the story of Precious to all of the other troubled young women in her class. Surely they all have various problems in their lives that have led to them being in this special school; one of the women even mentions a daughter and a past drug problem. There are six sad stories in that classroom, but Precious has the saddest one of them all by a mile and it is reflected in the way that all of the other students care for her and the way the teacher dotes on her and brings her home. In other words, out of all the students in Harlem, a special few make it to this school because they are troubled and struggling. And out of those students, Precious has a whole host of other problems. So, Precious is therefore the outlier rather than the norm, a rare case.

I had read a few reviews that spoke of how this film pays homage to how well the government programs can work since Precious is helped in the end by the work of welfare workers and special programs. Well, yeah, but she was suffering abuse for sixteen years despite weekly visits from a social worker, showing how easy it is for families to hide their secret demons from people. I thought that was one of the more effective points in the film, how easy it is to fool and cheat the system if you’re a monster like Precious’ mother.

But the film worked overall for me and the biggest reasons for that are the performances.  While the film often goes over the top and Lee Daniels clearly has seen Requiem for a Dream and apes it awkwardly from time to time, the performances ground it all in an emotional truth.

Mo’nique has been justly lauded as the woman to beat for Best Supporting Actress and she is truly terrifying; Joan Crawford has nothing on her. Gabourey Sidibe is unbelievably good with a permanent scowl on her face to suggest that there’s nothing in her life to be happy about, but with those wonderfully expressive eyes that seem perpetually on the verge of tears.  I don’t know how many more great roles there could be for an actress of her size – Hollywood usually prefers petite – but I hope to see her a lot more, to see her range. Sidibe and Mo’nique are truly astonishingly good and not enough praise can be given to them. Paula Patton is great as well in the “caring teacher/adult” role that we’ve seen in Ordinary People, Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets Society and many others, but she brings warmth to her role that is very comforting.  The rest of the cast, including Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitzand Sherri Shepherd, is also good.

But I do think that there are some threads that feel shoe-horned into the film or weren’t properly explained. We find out that Paula Patton’s character is a lesbian, which is great, but why do we need to know that?  What work is that doing for the film?  It doesn’t feel organic to the character; rather it feels as if the film is trying to get another point for being progressive. Then there is the issue of Precious’ grandmother who seems to serve no purpose other than being an explanation for why Precious’ older child is never around.  Grandma is taking care of the older tot – named Mongo, which is a whole other issue – but she doesn’t want to rescue her granddaughter from the clutches of grandma’s abusive daughter?

There is a mention of how grandma is afraid of Mary, but I don’t really buy that as a proper excuse.  I just want to know why grandma isn’t a larger part of Precious’ life if she’s taking care of Precious’ kid.  And going back to naming the kid Mongo…I understand that Precious is not the smartest kid, but why would she name her kid that?  I just don’t see how that would happen, especially seeing as how Precious cares very deeply for her child.

Precious is not a perfect film by any means.  It has a lot of issues and it doesn’t hit the mark that it aims for, feeling instead like an amalgamation of a lot of stories, as well as a lot of influences. This is a story that I’m glad was told, but I guess I feel like instead of spreading out the various things that plague the impoverished in America, they put it all on one single character. It is movie manipulation at its finest, but sometimes we go to the cinema to be manipulated. Sometimes we need a good cry (even if I didn’t) and that’s what this film is trying to do. While some might look at this film and see something that is truly a stunning work of art, I see instead a very well-done melodrama.  And that is not damning it with faint praise, I truly believe it does what it sets out to do and does it well.

– Noah Forrest
November 30, 2009

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon