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Precious (Review)

Diary of a sad black woman is a powerful, gritty urban fairy tale

By tt stern-enzi · November 18th, 2009 · Movies
Do you need to know Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) or an inner city girl (read: a young black teenager) like her? Does it matter how “real” she is, both as a character and an embodiment of a socio-cultural dynamic that we haven’t been able to overcome, mainly due to a profound and disturbing lack of interest from either a social science perspective or, more simply, in terms of her American narrative?

Does she have to be “real” before we can deign to consider her story? And if so, how “real”? As real, say, as the slumdog kids in last year’s Oscar winner?

I wonder, is she more authentic than Billy Bob Thornton’s mentally challenged protagonist in Sling Blade? Or how about comparing Precious and her dysfunctional family to that of the happy brood in the Oscar-winning American Beauty?

Rather random comparisons, you might argue, and to some extent you would be right — but no more random, in fact, than some of the absurdly ludicrous assertions leveled against Precious, the film and the character, on the eve of its wide release.

I appreciate that every year during the prestige season, a film or two suffers from the inevitable blowback of being a perceived frontrunner in the awards race.

What is so curious in this case is that we (and I intend this in the most general sense possible) face a character and a story rarely featured front and center in an urban movie narrative. If Precious and her monstrously abusive mother (Mo’Nique) appear on screen at all, they are anonymous faces and bodies in the background or are given precious little to say (think Viola Davis in Antwone Fisher).

But Lee Daniels, in adapting Sapphire’s decade-old novel about a New York City, barely functioning illiterate teenage mother (of two children by her own father) living under the thumb of her own frying-pan-wielding mother, sharply — and some would say uncomfortably — focuses on the girl and her struggle to achieve some semblance of self-realization. She is big.

She is black. She has been abused by life since life entered her.

The film manipulates us, but what film doesn’t? It makes us look at this girl and her dreams and the forces that defer those dreams every second of every minute of every day. Daniels has crafted an urban fairy tale, much more of a Grimm story than the brothers could have conceived in their day, and a far more cohesive narrative than the book, which was, by design, hemmed in by its illiterate narrator.

Mainstream critics have stumbled and fumbled in their attempts to approach the film without creating offense, which has largely been quite offensive. “We don’t know Precious or this world, so how can we judge it,” they lament.

I, as a black critic, can’t say that I knew someone like Karl Childers (from Sling Blade) or Lester Burnham (American Beauty), but I could watch and offer critical analysis of their stories. I can see that the elemental fire in Mo’Nique’s portrayal demands attention and even compassion. And I can offer the highest praise to Daniels for eliciting raw and honest performances from Pop stars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz.

I do not need to know a girl like Precious because Sapphire, Daniels and newcomer Sidibe have allowed Precious to speak for herself, and we would be wise to simply try our best to listen to her tale. Grade: A

Opens Nov. 20. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.



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