MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Precious Things

Back at Sundance last year, when Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire was first unveiled for critics with little fanfare but high hopes, quite a few folks thought it would never see the light of day off the fest circuit.

Too dark, too depressing, too tragic … with little redemption or justice to buoy it up. And really, who wanted to see a movie about this grossly overweight, African American girl with squinty eyes, this downtrodden victim of incest and horrific verbal and physical abuse? Who wanted to see a movie about relentless poverty, darkness and despair?

The conundrum of Precious: would middle class white folks really pay to be immersed in a film about the kind of wrenching poverty they prefer to pretend doesn’t exist in their own backyards, as they zoom around in their minivans and Hummers to Whole Foods and pick their kids up at their nice, safe, tony private schools? Would they — could they? — connect with Precious and her plight?

“Smart” black audiences — the African American intelligentsia, as it were, who most likely know who Sapphire is even outside the context of this book (unlike Anthony Lane, who apparently does not) would be interested, no doubt, but what about the Black urban audience that flocks to laugh it up at Tyler Perry films? Would they support this dark vision of the life of a poor African American girl who nobody seems to care about, or would they shun the film as too dark, too close to home, too depressing — even with support from the likes of Oprah and Tyler Perry himself?

Although Precious performed very well with arthouse audiences last weekend and talk of Oscar swirls around stars Gabby Sidibe and Mo’Nique like visions of naked-golden-man-statue sugarplums, the jury is still out on the Black Urban box office question. Nonetheless, as a film, Precious is still very deserving of being praised, and as a critic who fell in love with Precious back at Sundance, I feel compelled to encourage you, if you haven’t, to take the plunge and see this film, for there are many moments in there that are worth it.

What made Push: A Novel by Sapphire so remarkable is that it shows the raw resilience and courage of the human spirit. The main character’s life is a horror of gut-churning abuse at the hands of her mother Mary, played fiercely and fearlessly by Mo’Nique, who grabs hold of this repulsive character with all her strength and never lets go. She is raw and terrifying and she deserves absolutely the Oscar nomination she seems poised to receive. In my book she deserves it..

And then there is Gabby Sidibe, the young actress who faced the daunting challenge of bringing this very internal and introspective character to life for us on the screen and making us — middle class or poor, urban or suburban, white or black — care about Precious and her plight. The role of Precious demanded an actress with the bravery not just to own the part, but to embrace what Precious represents on an abstract level: all the unnamed children out there who suffer under the control of an abusive parent, who are crushed under the weight of the collective failure of systems intended to protect them … and the spirit they have that allows them to survive. Precious is every young girl or boy who’s ever been trampled on, spit on, mocked, abused, used, and yet risen above it… and Sidibe honors them with her brave performance of this challenging role..

Director Lee Daniels, for the most part, does a very able job in translating Sapphire‘s beloved literary work to the big screen, in part by supporting his lead actresses with some unexpectedly talented backup in the form of Paula Patton as the teacher who inspires Precious beyond her limitations, Lenny Kravitz as the empathetic Nurse John, and a de-glittered Mariah Carey (Seriously? Yes, seriously.) as an empathetic social worker. There’s a scene near the end of the film between Carey and Mo’Nique that is just an emotional kick to the guts; Mary, furious that Precious has abandoned her, slithers around emotionally, searching for the right tone to use in manipulating yet another social worker as she has so many times before.

This time, though, she unexpectedly stumbles upon heartbreaking honesty as she explains in halting tones her daughter’s long history of sexual abuse and her own reaction — and lack of action — to it.  In this raw, revealing, absolutely dreadful, heart-stopping moment, Mo’Nique owns Mary and her rage and shame completely, never backing down. It is a powerful moment in which we feel in full the weight of the mountain of maternal ineptitude that crushed Precious (and even Mary herself), and it is almost overwhelming.

These are the kinds of movie moments a cinephile like me lives for, and this scene is one of many reasons why I’ll be rooting for Precious at the box office and come Oscar day; Precious is not a perfect movie, perhaps, but it’s exactly the kind of film we need to see more filmmakers reaching for: bold and daring and honest, challenging and smart.

– Kim Voynar
November 13, 2009

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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.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon