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Impressions Based on the Hype for the Movie Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

This is the first of two posts about the movie "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire." In this one, I talk about the impressions I got from the movie's press coverage, advertising, reviews and word-of-mouth, and why they put me off the film. In the second part I'll write about my response to the movie when I finally, reluctantly, went to see it... (Part II: "Precious Based on the Movie Female Trouble by John Waters")

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I put it off as long as I could. For months I tried not to read about it, but I knew it had won a bunch of awards at Sundance back in January, 2009, when it was called 'Push.' That, in itself, is enough to make me want to avoid it. The Sundance Film Festival is notorious for hailing a certain type of dilettantish formula movie -- the feel-bad/feel-good story of degradation and redemption, set in a colorful, semi-exotic subculture -- and the picture eventually known as "Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" sure seemed to fit the profile. There's nothing I hate more than a voyeuristic lesson-movie that goes slumming and then presents itself as an inspirational triumph of the spirit. By the time Oprah (Winfrey, that is -- promoter of bogus New Age twaddle like "The Secret") and Tyler Perry (maker of amateurish chitlin' circuit teleplays) signed on, with great fanfare, as "presenters" I was beginning to think (as I used to tell my newspaper editors about movies I was fairly or unfairly predisposed to despise) that nobody had enough money to pay me to see this thing.

For the longest time I avoided the reviews, too -- until October when a friend e-mailed me Ed Gonzales's scathing pan at Slant, and the hilarious phrase "your tongue hasn't clucked this much since 'Crash' (2005)" leapt out at me. It seemed to confirm my first impressions. And, no, I'm not going to pretend I'm immune to advertising, press coverage and word-of-mouth any more than anybody else is. The best I can do is to limit my exposure, but "Precious" rolled out over months -- first on the film festival circuit (and it played them all), then in limited release, a few cities at a time. By the time it got to my town, Seattle, in mid- to late-November, I'd broken down and read some of the most extreme praise and condemnation the movie had elicited. Here are a few comments I came across that stood out for me as the most provocative:

Ed Gonzales, Slant.com:

...Daniels emphasizes only the worst in human nature, and does so in a way that flatters rather than confronts the prejudices (and fetishes) of his liberal audience.

One for the Stuff White People Like canon, "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" is an impeccably acted piece of trash--an exploitation film that shamelessly strokes its audience's sense of righteous indignation.

David Edelstein, New York Magazine:

There are worst-case scenarios, and then there is Precious, who's in a hellish league of her own. The heroine and narrator of the novel Push by Sapphire (born Ramona Lofton), now a much-hyped film called "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," is the embodiment of everything--I mean, everything--American society values least and victimizes most. She's a poor, illiterate, morbidly obese, dark-skinned African-American girl. She was raped by her father from the age of 3, pregnant with his child at 12 (the baby, which she names Mongo, has severe Down syndrome), and then pregnant by him again at 16, when the novel begins. She's also sexually molested by her jealous, welfare-cheating, gross, and sedentary mother, although the genital fingering might seem preferable to the verbal and physical abuse. The book gives you quite a bludgeoning. I started to pull back from it in a flashback when the 12-year-old girl is in labor on the kitchen floor and her mother is kicking her in the face.

Raina Kelley in Newsweek:

Precious is not an easy movie to watch, and there are people in the black community who wish that you wouldn't. They insist that it is yet another stereotypical, demonizing representation of black people. The other camp, however, is thrilled to see a depiction of a young African-American woman that, while heartbreaking, is a portrait of the black experience that has been overlooked on the sunny horizon that stretches from "The Cosby Show" to "House of Payne." Unfortunately, both of those reactions miss the movie's most searing message.[...]

I'm tired of movies presenting black people as grateful to find a helping hand to rise above their abusers. Not because we've seen this movie before -- starring Sidney Poitier, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, and even Matthew Perry -- but because the story never changes.

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times:

Precious has shut down. She avoids looking at people, she hardly ever speaks, she's nearly illiterate. Inside her lives a great hurt, and also her child, conceived in a rape. She is fat. Her clothes are too tight. School is an ordeal of mocking cruelty. Home is worse. Her mother, defeated by life, takes it out on her daughter. After Precious is raped by her father, her mother, is angry not at the man, but at the child for "stealing" him. [...]

That is the starting point for "Precious," a great American film that somehow finds an authentic way to move from these beginnings to an inspiring ending.

Armond White, NY Press:

Not since "The Birth of a Nation" has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as "Precious." Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it's been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.

The hype for "Precious" indicates a culture-wide willingness to accept particular ethnic stereotypes as a way of maintaining status quo film values. Excellent recent films with black themes--"Next Day Air," "Cadillac Records," "Meet Dave," "Norbit," "Little Man," "Akeelah and the Bee," "First Sunday," "The Ladykillers," "Marci X," "Palindromes," "Mr. 3000," even back to the great "Beloved" (also produced by Oprah)--have been ignored by the mainstream media and serious film culture while this carnival of black degradation gets celebrated. It's a strange combination of liberal guilt and condescension.

Wesley Morris, Boston Globe:

Europeans, notably Belgium's Dardenne brothers, have told versions of this story, more soberly and observationally. Realism, though, isn't quite right for the grotesquerie and comedy here.... The movie wants to go a little bit nuts, which is what happens whenever the comedian-actress Mo'Nique is on screen. Her stage act specialized in raunchy self-empowerment. Her movie work, specifically her tour de force in 2006's "Phat Girlz,'' has been about self-destructiveness. Her "Precious'' performance feels as much about spiritual exorcism as acting. It all culminates in a grand emotional breakdown that not even roadside assistance could do anything about. [Note: This review's verdict on the film is unquestionably positive.]

A.O. Scott, New York Times:

There is something almost reckless about this filmmaker's eclecticism, which extends from the casting -- pop stars and television personalities alongside trained and untrained actors -- to the visual textures and the soundtrack music. "Precious" is a hybrid, a mash-up that might have been ungainly, but that manages to be graceful instead. It's partly a bootstrap drama of resilience and redemption, complete with a hardworking teacher (Paula Patton) wrangling a classroom full of disadvantaged girls. It's also the nearly Gothic story of a child tormented by the cruelty of adults, as lurid as a Victorian potboiler or a modern-day tell-all memoir.

Above all "Precious" is unabashedly populist in its potent emotional appeal...

To Blacks, Precious is 'Demeaned' or 'Angelic' by Felicia R. Lee, New York Times:

"With Michelle, Sasha and Malia and Obama in the White House and in the post-'Cosby Show' era, people can't say these are the only images out there," Sapphire said. "Black people are able to say 'Precious' represents some of our children, but some of our children go to Yale."

"Child abuse is not black," she added. "What do you call the man in Austria who imprisoned his daughter for years?" [...]

"Precious" puts a much-needed spotlight on the underclass, said Nathan McCall, a novelist and former newspaper reporter who teaches a course on the history of African-American images at Emory University. But, he added, Lee Daniels, the film's director, could have avoided some stereotypes by not making light-complexioned actors the good guys or showing Precious eating a bucket of chicken, he said.

"A white artist can make a film about a family of 10 drug addicts, and the public sees it as a film about a family of 10 drug addicts, not 10 white drug addicts," Mr. McCall said. "A black artist can make that film, too, but you have to be aware of the history."

Eventually, the day before I actually saw "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," I came upon a conversation at The Awl in which Kia Matthews said:

Well. I didn't even want to see it. The trailer made me cry, so, I wasn't really looking forward to a full length version of that. It looked like that emotional porn? You know, downtrodden person going through trails, tribulations, strife, set to uplifting music and/or a gospel song, etc. [...]

Part of my reluctance to see it was that it looked extremely manipulative. On the one hand you have the story of a poor black fat woman in the ghetto. Which is like, YES WE KNOW IT IS DIFFICULT. On the other hand you can't NOT tell these kinds of stories because it's real and it happens more than anyone not living it could imagine. But it was different than I expected, I can say that.

I can now say that, too -- though I admit none of the things I heard or read about the movie in advance compelled me to want to see it. It was only after posting this parody video, "Precious Moments," along with a disclaimer that I hadn't seen the movie myself and was dreading the prospect, that I finally forced myself to confront my fear that the movie would be as sleazy and opportunistic as it looked. ("Precious Moments" is uncannily accurate, as it turns out -- not always in the ways I anticipated.) In my next post I'll write about the "Precious" I saw in this context, and how the movie both confirmed and confounded the expectations I'd failed to avoid forming over the year...

(Part II: "Precious Based on the Movie Female Trouble by John Waters")

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