Precious

With Precious, director Lee Daniels moves into the upper echelon of independent African-American directors. He has two peers are Spike Lee and Tyler Perry. Spike Lee’s approach is to be provocative, challenging the beliefs and assumptions of his audience, especially the white portion of it. Tyler Perry goes the Cosby route, setting his morality tales in the middle class. Daniels’ films are placed squarely in the ghetto, but he avoids the polemics of his two contemporaries.

Precious, played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is a 16-year-old girl, weighing over 300 pounds with one child by her father already and another one on the way. She’s smart but illiterate and therefore has a hard time in school. Mary, her mother, played by Mo’Nique is a monster, constantly criticizing and hitting her daughter. This woman is never in a good mood. When the principal discovers that Precious is pregnant again, she enrolls her in an alternative school, so that she can begin to study for her G.E.D.  This school is run by Ms. Rain, played by Paula Patton. The story is set in 1987 Harlem.

First of all, let me say that Lee Daniels is a master filmmaker. He uses the basic tools of film–shot composition, sound and especially editing to make a visceral and intense experience out of what is actually a standard Hollywood plot. When the shots start getting shorter, you know that Mary is about to do something horrible. The natural lighting, the grainy film stock, and the handheld camera all add to the dreariness of Precious’ world.

He also evokes tremendous performances from his cast. First and foremost, of course is the lead. Gabourey Sidibe is absolutely amazing as Precious. When she’s dealing with principals, teachers and social workers, authority figures that she has been taught to distrust, her face and her manner are closed, hostile, completely unwelcoming, but when she’s trying to please her impossible mother, she packs in all those emotions as well as fear and anger. There are also dream sequences where Precious imagines herself on the red carpet, posing for photographers with a handsome man by her side. In these her face lights up with charisma and warmth.

As Mary, Precious’ awful mother, Mo’Nique breaths fire, but also humanity into the character. She has her reasons for being the way she is. You don’t like her, but you understand her. Paula Patton plays Ms. Rain with steely compassion. Mariah Carey plays Mrs. Weiss, a social worker, with the same no-nonsense attitude.

There are a few nits to pick, mostly with minor plot points. At one point, Precious steals her file from the welfare office and you never see her get in trouble for that. Lenny Kravitz plays a male nurse who seems like he might be an interesting character but nothing is ever done with him. But even these flaws add to the sense of chaos.

Daniels has been criticized for not explicitly condemning the prejudice and poverty that lie behind the horrible social problems he depicts. The character of Mary, the mother, in particular has been criticized. Daniels shows her scamming the welfare system, lying about looking for a job, and trying to force Precious into signing up for it too. Conservatives will point to this woman and say “welfare queen,” and think that the filmmaker is saying that welfare is problem. But I think that’s too simplistic. Lee Daniels has taken a story and set it in this world. He is not afraid to let his characters be flawed and to let the axes grind themselves.

And in the end total fidelity to reality might be more effective at drawing attention to these problems than distorting the truth in order to belabor a point.

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