I missed the press screenings for Precious, but felt so galvanized by catching it over the weekend that a review was necessary. Hitting squarely in the late-November Oscar bait season, Precious is being hailed by critics worldwide as “a great American film.” But, and not to be contrarian, I walked out of the theater unconvinced, feeling like I’d just washed a curious mix of Blaxploitation sleaze and After-School Special.
The basics: Precious (Based On The Novel By Sapphire) follows the titular character through a little over a year of her miserable, debased life, being raped by her father and abused by her mother in the confines of a bleak Harlem apartment, until the shining angel of literacy lifts her from her situation, sort of. The first act of the flick plays out like a John Waters film in blackface, with comedic intercuts from Precious’s pop having his way with her to eggs sizzling in bacon grease and pots of hamhocks boiling on the stove. By the time Mo’nique started doing aerobics in front of the TV in a flowered jumpsuit, I was having a hard time stifling my laughter. The scenes of depravity and horror seem straight out of a grade-Z Dolemite, with Precious stealing buckets of chicken and fantasizing about having a “light skinned boyfriend.”
Things change for Precious, who is pregnant with her second child, when she’s transferred to an “alternative school,” there to learn how to read and write in a classroom full of uniquely New Yorkean sterotypes (The West Indian! The Italian junkie! The ghetto transwoman!). Precious, who can barely grind her way through the alphabet, is transformed into a being capable of self-reflection and personal growth, even winning an award from the Mayor! Roll credits, Kirk Cameron PSA on tolerance, and we’re out.
Only Precious wants to do more than that, and in doing so accomplishes less. Indignity is heaped on Precious like jimmies on a foul sundae – her first child (of incest) is retarded! Her mother makes her service her sexually! She has AIDS! – and this overwhelming torrent of abuse eventually completely desensitized me to her as a human being. Instead, Precious became a sort of wicker man, sent to contain the entirety of white guilt before being set ablaze. Precious is barely a person, with few redeeming character traits behind a well-turned interior monologue or two. I’m not at the point in my life where bad things happening to someone can make me care for them. Sure, Precious is in a horrible place, with horrible people. But so what?
The one film Precious most reminded me of was The Wrestler, which tacked similar scenes of human degradation onto a paper-thin plot. Like that movie, I walked out of the theater feeling emotionally exhausted but unconvinced that I’d seen anything of any particular value. Some great performances (and some capable ones, including Mariah Carey, seemingly cast to make white people in the theater say “Oh my God, it’s Mariah Carey”) don’t redeem this self-hating lecture from the heart of Harlem. Precious is coal, not diamonds.