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Tambay’s Thoughts On Precious

Precious 2

The unbelievably high expectations many have for Precious will be to the film’s eventual detriment. It’s been the “must-see” black film of the year, since shocking the world by unexpectedly winning the audience prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Since then, it’s been nothing but good vibrations for the film and the team behind it, as it’s collected a plethora of awards, with a lot of talk amongst critics, of the film’s potential nods at next year’s Academy Awards – notably for its 2 stars, Gabourey Sidibe who plays the titular “Precious,” and actress/comedian Mo’Nique, her abusive mother, in a relationship that’s characterized by habitual violence and cruelty.

If the story as you know it sounds heartbreaking, it is – at least, as director Lee Daniels tells it, it wants to be. However, I expected much more. A film of this nature, and the subject matter it covers, should feel more like a punch in the gut. I wanted to be overwhelmed, and be really consumed with the characters and the story. However, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for, and needed, in order to really like the film; instead, it felt rather watered-down, and simplified; in fact, if it weren’t for the rich performance Mo’Nique gives, and of course the profanity, this could easily be an after-school special.

I wanted more of that kind of grittiness and uncompromising reality. This is a film about a young, illiterate, obese black girl, who suffers daily horrendous abuse from her mother, and is repeatedly raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and has 2 of his children, and more. Show me! Take me there… take me to that place. She’s suffering immensely, despite trying desperately to keep herself together; I wanted to really feel that suffering. I wanted to be really moved – not that there weren’t evocative moments; but either there weren’t enough of them, or those that were there weren’t weighty enough.

As I watched, I kept asking myself what Lee Daniels’ motives are… what he wants to say with the film… who he wants to reach with it. If he’s trying to be subversive, I’d say he fails on that front. If he’s trying to play on the guilt of white liberals, as if to say, “look at the monster you people helped create, now go do something for all the Precious girls out there,” I’m not so sure he succeeded there either. Although, maybe he does, because, thus far, most audiences who’ve seen the film, everywhere it’s played since its Sundance debut, have been white, since the festivals that it’s screened in have typically been those in which you’d find a minuscule number of black people in the audiences; and those blacks who are interested and can afford to attend these prominent festivals (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, New York, etc, where tickets are $40 a piece), are definitely not the people represented in the movie itself. So, it does make one wonder about the praise the film has received from overwhelmingly white critics and audiences. In reading some of their reviews, words like “urban nightmare” and a “must-see portrait of life’s underprivileged” tell part of the tale. These are the kinds of “black films” that white liberal critics tend to fall in love with – the so-called gritty urban dramas that portray a world so unlike theirs, and that confirm, and even massage some of that obligation they might feel, but rarely ever really act on. I’m now even more interested in how black audiences receive the film when it opens across the country next month.

I should mention that it was good to see that Precious isn’t “saved” by the expected white teacher, or white social worker, but rather a collective of black people with a vested interest in seeing her succeed. However, as we’ve already heard, there’ve been concerns that the black men and women who come to Precious’s aid, are mostly of the light-skinned variety – Paula Patton’s teacher, Lenny Kravitz’s male nurse, and of course, Mariah Carey’s racially ambiguous social worker.

Precious lives in her head. There are several fantasy sequences, occurring when she’s most in need of an escape, which Lee Daniels handles rather poorly, I thought; visions of Precious singing on stages, walking down red carpets with a light-skinned boyfriend, and even seeing herself in the mirror as a white girl; those particular scenes were uncharacteristically hokey, and only really succeed at simplifying what should be Precious’s rather complex range of emotions, insecurities and desires to escape. I’d like to believe that there are much more subtle, yet on-the-nose methods to handle Precious’s moments of reverie. The decision-making by Daniels in those scenes was unfortunate, and there are quite a few, that by the 3rd or 4th one, I’d had enough of them.

In what could be described as a foreshadowing of events that will unfold in real life, and also more evidence of Daniels’ immature direction, there’s a scene in which a fairly large, unmissable poster of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf, hangs on a wall in the background of an apartment. The camera catches it, obviously intentionally, and as a kind of inside joke, I chuckled to myself, knowing that the film adaptation for the literary work (much like Sapphire’s Push) is also currently in production – a work that also is very much in that same oppressive vain that whites will likely “appreciate” and gush over, assuming Tyler Perry does a somewhat serviceable job.

Yet another head-scratching sequence involves a series of images of prominent historical African-African men and women, along with their voices and words, including a speech by Malcolm X, which float across windows, curtains and chalkboards in a classroom, as Precious sits in the center of the class, like a young apprentice, receiving wisdom from the wise sages that encircle her. Again, poorly handled. A completely useless scene that felt like it belonged in a completely different movie altogether.

Without a doubt, Mo’Nique gives the strongest performance, and I’d even say that she saves the film. There’s a scene towards the end of the movie in which she’s fighting to maintain control of herself, and watching her gradually unravel, with a kind of vulnerability you wouldn’t expect from her, is really one of those rare on screen moments that you’ll want to watch over, and that acting instructors will likely show their students in class. Definitely what you could call a tour de force performance, and certainly, she will be nominated for an Academy Award next year. Whether she wins, is anyone’s guess.

As for the rest of the performances… Gabourey Sidibe is mostly believable as Precious. With a protruding jawline, and barely visible eyes, her face speaks volumes, despite the fact that the character is mostly mute throughout the film. She gets the job done; however, any talk about her being an Academy Award favorite for “Best Actress” should be silenced immediately.

There are a handful of supporting characters who Precious comes in contact with on her journey. Daniels really should have taken a page from the Coen Brothers book on filmmaking, and given those roles to strong character actors who could have brought more to each role, and made the characters much more memorable, and, in consequence, improved on the quality of the film. It’s not that Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, and Sherri Shepherd are terrible in their respective roles; they were adequate; however, they could have been a lot better, and I think Daniels limited himself, and thus the film, by casting them. It’s such a strong literary work, so why not cast strong character actors to really give the film the oomph the story needs?

As heartbreaking as the movie wants to be, it also inspires to be hopeful, as, by the end of the film, equipped with the knowledge that her life might soon be ending, Precious becomes even more determined to pull herself out of the mire she lives in. So, kudos goes to Daniels and company for even attempting to bring Sapphire’s work to the screen. If it’s any consolation, likely somewhere out there, a girl in Precious’s predicament just might see the film and be influenced by it in some positive manner. It’s just a shame that, in my opinion, it doesn’t seem as if Daniels was really thinking about those real life girls, as he gave the film life.

My suggestion to those of you who will be seeing the film when it reaches theatres in November, is that you enter the theatre with reduced expectations, otherwise you will be disappointed.

I’d give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

18 comments to Tambay’s Thoughts On Precious

    • Hey, you stole my review :)

      But seriously, I was actually looking forward to hearing your specific thoughts on it, knowing how much of a fan of Lee Daniels you are.

      • pnc

        Yaah right Tambay.

        …except mine was posted the day before.

        At least I’m not the only one who thinks the PRECIOUS-hype is obnoxious.

      • pnc

        I’m hoping that it won’t be too much of an “urban” woe-is-me tale and that it won’t give any pat insights into what she’s feeling either, and and am hoping that your lack of satisfaction with it is testament to the fact that Daniels doesn’t do this.
        It’s hard to capture the ordinariness of an extraordinarily brutal life, so I guess I’m looking forward to seeing how Lee does this, if at all.
        __________________________________

        Keep dreaming.

  • Thank you for this review Tambay it’s very thoughtful and honest. I look forward to seeing the film but from what you say and from what I’ve seen of Lee Daniel’s previous work I can see myself coming away with similar views.

  • Interesting… Having only recently read the book, but having already heard all the hoopla, I have to say that I expected it to be a lot more heart-rending that it was.

    Instead, I found the book to be quite matter of fact with regard to what were quite shockingly disturbing/distasteful incidents in the life of a young woman who managed to somehow see her way out a life of control and abuse by others through individually targeted education/words (the scene you describe with the floating words actually sounded quite apt to me).

    You write:

    “Take me there… take me to that place. She’s suffering immensely, despite trying desperately to keep herself together; I wanted to really feel that suffering. I wanted to be really moved – not that there weren’t evocative moments; but either there weren’t enough of them, or those that were there weren’t weighty enough.”

    Even the book didn’t really get into the head of its protagonist, maybe because people who’ve gone through such abuse tend to either block it out of their minds altogether or try to make sense of who they are in spite of all that’s happened to them and who/what people keep telling them they are.

    A lot of what happens in the book is external, outside of what’s happening in Precious’ head. When we do get the odd peak into her mind, it’s not at all clear or lucid, but bursts of blankness with intermittent snatches – words, images – of a kaleidoscope of ocassionally good and, more often, bad moments that have impacted her life.

    At the age that Precious is in the book and film, in reality she’d still have a long way ahead of her in terms of figuring herself out, so what you’re going to get by delving into her head probably won’t be as succinct or clear-cut as you might like.

    It’s for these reasons that I look forward (and I use that term reservedly) to seeing the film in a couple of weeks’ time (I’m seeing it during the London Film Festival on 23 October) to see how Lee handles a delicate situation.

    Sadly, Hollywood and popular fiction has fed us with lots of melodramatic ideas of what such a charcter or victim of abuse should/might be thinking/feeling, so maybe it’s your expectation that has disappointed you rather than the film’s efforts. Maybe you shouldn’t have been expecting to be moved instead of left feeling stunned, confused, distant and little cold… a little, perhaps like the charcter of Precious herself might feel…?

    I’ve had my suspiciouns about why the film has been lauded so greatly on the festival circuit and, sadly they pretty much echo yours. I’d like to think, however, that the film has a lot more going for it than just excising white liberal sympathy/guilt.

    I’m hoping that it won’t be too much of an “urban” woe-is-me tale and that it won’t give any pat insights into what she’s feeling either, and and am hoping that your lack of satisfaction with it is testament to the fact that Daniels doesn’t do this.

    It’s hard to capture the ordinariness of an extraordinarily brutal life, so I guess I’m looking forward to seeing how Lee does this, if at all.

    • At the age that Precious is in the book and film, in reality she’d still have a long way ahead of her in terms of figuring herself out, so what you’re going to get by delving into her head probably won’t be as succinct or clear-cut as you might like.

      Ahh… but therein lies the problem… when we do delve into her head, what Daniels gives us is very much indeed succinct, clear-cut and pat… too much so actually, and those scenes really do take you out of the moment. I would have loved to see more opaque, bursts of blankness, with an intermittent kaleidoscope of words and images, or some variation of that; but we get these exact interpretations that really do seem like they belong in another film, and just don’t work.

      The problem is that I just didn’t feel much of anything… neither moved, nor stunned, or confused. I guess that’s what I mean when I say I wanted more. I wanted him to make me feel something. A film like this should sit with you, at least I think so, and, Mo’Nique’s performance aside, this one is easily forgotten, and I don’t think it should be.

      It’s not bad, but, more ehhh than memorable.

      Looking forward to reading what you think of it after you see it.

      • Given that I wrote:

        I’m hoping that it won’t be too much of an “urban” woe-is-me tale and that it won’t give any pat insights into what she’s feeling either, and and am hoping that your lack of satisfaction with it is testament to the fact that Daniels doesn’t do this.

        I guess I’m in for a disappointing time then.

        Maybe the Lee Daniels “Master Class” the next day will shed some light on why he took the decisions he did.

        It could all just boil down to the fact that he made it primarily for a white audience (something I felt about Monster’s Ball and Shadowboxer), but we all got caught up in the festival circuit hype and the fact that it’s a primarly black cast.

        But hey, I haven’te seen the film yet, so I’ll just wait and see.

  • ladybug

    I read the book and felt like the book begged to be brought to the screen despite its subject matter. I was looking forward to Daniel\’s adaptation. But I have to say I was disappointed as well . . . I have to agree with Tambay that the weight was missing. The book keeps you awake at night . . . the movie not so much. After leaving and having a brief conversation . . . I kind of forgot about it.

    The dream sequences in my opinion took away from the film . . . they are a very important part of the book . . but needed to be grounded in the film. I think that keeping the sequences rooted in the scene would have helped . . . giving us some sort of visual clue that the sequences were happening but not literally giving us one each time something bad happens.

    I also have to agree with Tambay about the supporting characters . . . hiring "REAL" character actors would have balanced the film. I kind of felt like we are talking about Mariah . . . because she wasn’t horrible . . . but there was nothing about her performance that was particularly mind blowing either. And most importantly . . . my vision of Ms. Rain from reading the book . . . was certainly not Paula Patton. . . and she does nothing for me in the film.

    Gabriel should not be getting an Oscar Nomination . . . though she was fine as Precious . . . but I couldn’t use the word great. MoNique on the other hand . . . WOW . . . didn’t realize she had it in her . . . her final scene is heartbreaking . . . and I hope she gets the recognition she deserves come awards season . . . I can’t say win because the Oscar films are just starting to be released . . . but I would say her chances are strong!

    I would still say . . . GO SEE PRECIOUS . . . it deserves to be seen!

    • NothingButAMan

      “And most importantly . . . my vision of Ms. Rain from reading the book . . . was certainly not Paula Patton. . . and she does nothing for me in the film.”

      Um, yeah! That was a real issue to me when I heard that they cast her in that role. It’s unfortunate to me that they took that character in a more “femme” direction, as if to try to assimilate her for heterosexual approval.

    • Surely you mean the book begged to be brought to the screen BECAUSE of its subject matter rather than despite it…?

      • ladybug

        I say despite because its heavy, its like the suffering never ends which equals hard to market for them . . . especially since all that suffering is about a person of color.

  • NothingButAMan

    I had plans to support “Precious” at the Chicago Int’l Film Fest, but the 1st screening, at $40.00 and the $23.00 ticket for the other screening isn’t that serious for me and my pockets right now. I’m supporting it opening weekend, but from what I can tell, I agree that the marketing has been more about drumming up “white guilt” audiences, than the community that the characters are from… not that they shouldn’t go for the white liberal audience, but it can seem a bit desperate at times.

    There does seem to be this interesting preference for the young-underprivileged-black-in-melodramatic-crisis when it comes to what we see in indie film: “God grew tired of us” “Ballast”, etc. There seems to be something missing from these depictions, guess I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s probably my (our) responsibility figure it out and write a script that tells our story in a more complete way.

  • pnc

    Sadly, Hollywood and popular fiction has fed us with lots of melodramatic ideas of what such a charcter or victim of abuse should/might be thinking/feeling, so maybe it’s your expectation that has disappointed you rather than the film’s efforts. Maybe you shouldn’t have been expecting to be moved instead of left feeling stunned, confused, distant and little cold… a little, perhaps like the charcter of Precious herself might feel…?
    _____________________________

    I certainly didn\’t want anything as obvious as the scenario you\’ve outlined. I despise melodrama.

    Needing to FEEL something for the character is paramount in this situation. She\’s had all of these atrocious things happen to her, so YES, I should feel something.

    Have you ever seen the film THE WAR ZONE? I felt numb for weeks after seeing that film about similar abuses. And I never ever want to see it again. And to this day, I regard it as one of the best films ever made.

    • Um… There’s no dispute about feeling. Feeling is, of course, paramount. The question here was whether Tambay expected to feel moved (supposedly by sympathy) or whether he wished to rather feel numbed or left cold (as one might perhaps feel in empathy).

      Seems Daniels was unable to elicit either.

  • Sergio

    Yeah you pretty much said what i said in my earlier piece about the film only much better. Though, and I’m sure I’m the only one who feels this, I thought Mariah Carey of all people gave the best performance in the film. Mo’Nique actually I thought had it easy. All she had to do was to be the the most evilest person ever which is rather easy to pull off in a film. There’s no subtle shading in her character. She’s pretty much all there and one dimensional. Yeah sure she’s effective, but in the end, there’s not much there. I think people are more surprised that it’s her doing the role than a more seerious established actress.

    And of course white critics are going to go crazy over for precious for the same reason they used to go crazy with August Wilson plays. After seeing one they can say:”Now I know what it truly means to be black after seeing it”

  • Hi Tambay,

    I like your review and I’m sure you would appreciate mine:

    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2370148/movie_review_precious%20_based_on_a_novel.html?cat=38

    Be sure to tell me what you think.

  • @ Quentin Strum, i dug the “Chester Himes-Grit!” in your salient essay.