A film as lost as the girl it glorifies
By Courtland Milloy
Now that I have seen the movie "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," I'm all the more bewildered by its enthusiastic reception, especially in the white media. The fictional story revolves around a black teenager, Claireece "Precious" Jones, who is raped by her father, gets pregnant by him -- twice -- and endures the depravity of her psychopathic mother.
The Huffington Post raved: "This is a film that doesn't shy away from the depths to which human beings can sink. . . ." You'd think the movie was a documentary.
The independent film, directed by Lee Daniels and adapted from a 1996 novel by the poet Sapphire, raked in an impressive $6 million during its weekend debut. Little wonder, though, given all the media buzz.
The New York Times Magazine featured the movie as a cover story last month and declared: "Precious is a stand-in for anyone -- black, white, male, female -- who has ever been devalued or underestimated."
Let's see: I lose my job, so I take in a movie about a serially abused black girl and I go, "Oh, swell, she's standing in for me."
Maybe there is something to the notion that when human pathology is given a black face, white people don't have to feel so bad about their own. At least somebody's happy.
Sexual abuse is certainly an equal-opportunity crime, with black and white women similarly affected. But only exaggerated black depravity seems to resonate so forcefully in the imagination.
White suburban boys are so fascinated by it that they fueled an explosion of gangsta rap -- misogynistic lyrics against a backdrop of booty-shaking black women.
Of course, "Precious" would not have received nearly as much media buzz if Oprah Winfrey and Tyler "Madea" Perry had not signed on as executive producers. Oddly, neither has made a movie about rising above a challenging background and becoming a wealthy and influential entertainer.
Asked by Entertainment Weekly magazine why she got involved with the project, Oprah said: "I realized that, Jesus, I have seen that girl a million times. I see that girl every morning on the way to work, I see her standing on the corner, I see her waiting for the bus as I'm passing in my limo, I see her coming out of the drugstore, and she's been invisible to me."
Instead of making a movie about how she beat the odds, Oprah has taken to divining ugly life stories from black girls she passes in her limo. Maybe the Obama girls should stay off the sidewalk for a while.
In "Precious," Oprah and Perry have helped serve up a film of prurient interest that has about as much redeeming social value as a porn flick. In it, we glimpse a sweaty, faceless brute of a black man raping the girl while her mother watches from a doorway. Two children are conceived in incest.
"The Jones family home is an amber-lit hell, and we're not initially sure whether Precious is a prisoner or a participant in it," says Time magazine. "The movie allows moments of judging Precious . . . then begins to roll out a series of nightmares that last the whole day long: rape, incest and a mother so lacking in human decency that she not only aided in a father's lust for a child but also considered the child as a witting rival."
Rolling Stone gave "Precious" 3.5 stars out of four. Three X's would be more like it.
I watched the movie at a theater in Alexandria where showtimes are nearly around the clock, from 10:15 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. The audience was mostly black women and teenagers. When the lights came up, all of the moviegoers appeared sullen and depressed.
After escaping the abuse of her home life, Precious ends up in a halfway house. She is still functionally illiterate and has two babies to care for, one with Down syndrome.
Strangest of all, many reviewers felt the movie ended on a high note. Time, for instance, wrote that Precious "makes an utterly believable and electrifying rise from an urban abyss of ignorance and neglect."
Excuse me, the movie ends with the girl walking the streets, babies in her arms, having just learned that her father has died of AIDS -- but not before infecting her.
The story is set in 1987, before AIDS treatment became widely available. Precious is as good as dead.
At the Cannes Film Festival, members of a mostly white audience gave "Precious" a 15-minute standing ovation.
I guess they can hardly wait for the sequel.