ANNE MARIE FOX
When a filmmaker chooses to title his movie Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, you know what qualities not to expect from him: concision, reticence, subtlety, allusiveness. You may also anticipate, correctly, a lack of excessive self-regard. Before you’ve even bought your ticket, producer-director Lee Daniels has disavowed any claim to have thought up his project’s sensational premise. I will soon get around to praising him for this modesty, and for his film as a whole. First, though, I need to deal with the question he’s raised about the relationship between the movie and its source.
Like Push before it, Precious purports to give voice to someone who is midway in status between a fictional character and a worst-case scenario: an illiterate, battered, obese, welfare-dependent 16-year-old girl in 1980s Harlem who at the start of the story is pregnant for the second time by her now-missing father. This is someone who can defiantly describe herself (in both the novel and the film’s voiceover narration) as a loud-talking, gluttonous offense to middle-class white society: “Ugly black grease to be wipe away.” The principal difference between the novel and the movie lies in the contrasting modes of irony they use to undo this hellish stereotype (which they themselves have called up) and affirm the character’s humanity. The novel does this work by drawing attention to the gap between Claireece Precious Jones’s inner world and her painfully limited powers of expression. (She is “in the ninfe grade” and has a daughter who “got Down Sinder.”) The movie draws your attention to the gap between Precious’s painfully limited circumstances and the extravagant means of expression at Daniels’s command.
He does not merely suggest Precious’s inner world. He makes it explode in full movie color against a jumpin’ soundtrack. The dimly lit box of daily suffering splinters apart, and Precious, suddenly draped in leopard skin and blessed with good hair, will sweep ecstatically onto a red carpet. Or she will receive encouraging nods and winks from the animated pictures in her photo album; or look in the mirror and see that she’s slim, pretty and blond; or literally become absorbed in the movie playing on TV–De Sica’s Two Women, if I’m not mistaken–and begin speaking Italian in a black-and-white world.
In the novel, Precious describes such imaginative longings in her own words. This isn’t to say that the author’s voice and the narrator’s are perfectly merged–the disguise is sometimes thin or inconsistent–but the match is close enough for novelistic convention. More important, language eventually becomes the medium for Precious’s growing sense of self-worth–Push is the story of an education–so that circumstance, fantasy and aspiration are all made of one malleable substance. In the film, though, Daniels’s set pieces split author from character, imagination from reality, in a way that cinematic convention does not entirely cover. Yes, these directorial flights wring pathos from Precious’s pop-culture dreams, which abase her heart even while lifting it. But as parodies, they elicit, perhaps unavoidably, a slight condescension toward the entertainments of the recent past and the people who were suckers for them. As amusements for the audience, they remove the viewer temporarily (blessedly) from the overall oppressiveness of the character’s life. Not least, as vehicles for performance, they give the remarkable young actress who plays Precious, Gabourey Sidibe, a few much-needed opportunities to show that she is not really this character.