Thursday, November, 19, 09

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

by theradishpress

Sadiqeh and I just saw Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, which I will hence forth refer to as Precious. I am still processing the film, and as Miss Rain says, “write.”So, I want to write about this. I want to process it here.

When I first heard about this movie months ago from a friend who saw it at Sundance I was hesitant. My friend talked to me about the plot, as I had not read the book, and I wondered if this was going to be a movie that exploited African-American and poor folks. I forgot about the movie. Then in the summer I heard about Precious all over again. This time I heard that Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry had signed on to produce the film, and that the director is African-American. I felt good about this, that here are African-American folks supporting and creating this film, as opposed to a project created, produced, and directed entirely by folks on the outside, and in true Hollywood fashion: a white/privileged look at the Other.

I decided to read the book this summer. I found it to be extremely intense, and despite its short length, the book took a lot out of me. On one hand I was reminded of reading Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Several passages are in Spanish with no translation. As I read the book I had decided to not look up the translation. I liked not knowing what was being said and sometimes understanding words here and there. I felt like maybe part of the point of McCarthy’s work was to leave readers just as lost as his hero. A Clockwork Orange is a mixture of English and Russian in a futuristic language Burgess invented, one I was proud to decipher as I read the book. Reading Push reminded me of these two novels because when Precious writes in her journal it is in broken English as she learns to read and write.

For the most part, Precious’ words are “corrected” by Miss Rain. The lazy part of me appreciated the translations, but I also liked reading Precious’ words. I liked reading it in her voice. I could not help but be reminded of my father’s older sister who learned to read and write well into her sixties. Precious’ words, viewed traditionally as incorrect, are just as valid as those of Miss Rain’s and those of anyone else. Language is a fluid communication. Literature is a malleable medium.

After reading the book and then seeing previews for the film I decided that I had to see it. And in the theater. The cast alone was reason enough for me to be drawn in. I have frequently said that there is something terrifying about comedians playing villainous characters. Seeing someone like Mo’Nique out of her known element is not only intriguing, but unnerving. And it is an opportunity to see how brilliant of an actor one truly is.

I sat in the cinema at times feeling numb. I was completely drawn into the film and I also felt almost like shock hit me. I was silent, and not in my usual “don’t talk during movies” silent either. I was silent and zombified afterward for a good bit.

I have to be honest, I expected and still expect a lot of folks to walk away from this movie with stereotypes confirmed or built. I expect a lot of folks to be angry. And I am not specifying any type of “folks” here because I don’t think any one type or group will react this way, but folks from all backgrounds. And I will be completely honest and admit that part of me feared seeing this film, that some of my own records would surface, that I would react with prejudice. And I am happy to say that part of the brilliance of this film is that it does not operate on stereotypes (which, by the way, how I or anyone else react/s/ed cannot be “blamed” solely on the film. We are all accountable for our own selves). Precious is all about storytelling. Precious tells her story within a story and meets other folks who have their own stories, which they share. Everyone has a story. Miss Weiss, Nurse John, Miss Rain, Joann, Jermaine, everyone has a story to tell. Like the book, the film has multiple stories built into it.

You know movies that are about making movies or writing a screenplay, but it’s so blatantly in your face, as if you, the viewer, are in on some great joke like: hey, isn’t it funny how we wrote a movie about writing movies? No, actually it’s not. Try an angle like The Player or Mulholland Dr. Well Precious is not pretentious in that sense either. The fact that Percious is narrating her life, then narrates from her journal, layering her stories – because we as individuals are not made up of one narrative eitherĀ  – is not the main focus of the film’s narrative. On the one hand the movie is about how her story is told, and it is not. It is about more than how, but also what and why.

I saw Mo’Nique on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and she said that one thing that makes this movie/story different is that it deals with mental illness differently: not within the walls of an institution, but in the real world. Mo’Nique’s point was important for me to remember when watching the movie. It is so easy to think of mental illness as something easily treated and within walls safe and faraway from the rest of us apparently sane people. But the fact of the matter is, mental illness is too often ignored, and it runs deep.

Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique were for me the most powerful performers in the film. Their honesty and emotion was so vivid in each scene. Mo’Nique had me in tears at the end. And I love her for that. Her character is so evil and so easy to hate. To be able to make me feel sad for her and not just see her as vicious and completely pathetic, is brilliant. I always love characters who are complex and created of multiple layers. Until the end her character, Mary Jones, was easily dismissed as pure evil. And my reaction did not remove accountability either. Not for me, and not for Precious. Precious had grown to know herself. She was now capable of walking away from her mother without ever needing or wanting to go back. And she was able to have sympathy, to understand.

I feel like it is too easy to walk away from a film like this and have an attitude of “well, that sucks,” or “see anyone can help themselves,” but those are not critical reactions. A lot is brought up in this story: racism, poverty, domestic violence, education, mental illness, and these only scratch the surface. There is some serious dialogue that can happen around this story. Imagine the conversations that could take place around internalized oppression; a government/society/system that full on abandons people without healthcare; the long-term emotional, psychological, physical, etc effects of racism; and the failure of our education system. Art has the power to create movement. Powerful art works beyond itself and is a catalyst. Maybe one book and movie can’t change everything, but they can definitely help.

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