Thursday, March 4, 2010

A TV set with no picture

Don't nobody want me. Don't nobody need me. I know who I am. I know what they say I am.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (U.S., 2009) directed by Lee Daniels, 110 minutes
Push by Sapphire (Random House, 1996) 175 pages

Nominated for Six Oscars: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Directing, Best Film Editing, Best Picture, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Despite the hype surrounding the film (renamed Precious because of a 2009 sci-fi film similarly named), I wanted to read the book too. I wanted to hear the voice of this writer. I wanted to see if Sapphire could create, and sustain, the voice of an illiterate sixteen year who seems to hold little promise based on how she looks and what she has experienced at the hands of her parents and the world.

Is it a grotesque carnival of negative stereotypes about black people or a message of hope and a realistic portrayal of a troubled young black girl with few hopes? When dealing with disturbing material in art - here there is incest, rape, sexual abuse, violence, what might be perceived as negative stereotyping of black people - when is it too much to include? I think it is when its artistic value becomes less important than the sensationalism of the material. Sapphire walks a fine line but she does not cross it I feel.

I would have to say that in the book Sapphire largely succeeds in this attempt to create a voice for Precious. This is a brutal, unrelenting portrayal of Precious' life: sexually abused by her father and impregnated by him twice; mentally and physically abused by her mother; despised by the world, vilified and ignored. I don't think I am telling you anything that the movie trailers have not.

The film is ... how can I describe it? Gentler? Less graphic? I'm not sure my words adequately explain this. The book is raw and painful and it works on that level. I did not want to see, in the film, all the things I read about in the book. A mere suggestion of this horror was enough for me. For instance, we see but a brief glimpse of Precious' father raping her (and it is only shown once), shot in a hazy sort of dream-like state with the mother Mary (the terrifyingly convincing Mo'Nique) standing in the background doing nothing.

The comedian Mo'Nique is a revelation here: mean, ugly, vicious, violent, completely unafraid as an actress to display all the evil that this character embodies.

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is deemed too fat, too ugly, disposable and useless. But the real Precious is a girl of intense emotions and vulnerability with aspirations beneath a forbidding exterior. Both mother and daughter are morbidly obese. Of her mother Precious says in the book, "She ain' circus size yet but she getting there."

Even Precious' dreams in the book are haunted by abuse - too disturbing to detail here - where she pictures herself a tiny child at the mercy of her mother. A memory? A dream? In it, the tiny baby trills the alphabet - is that Precious as she might have been if she had had the proper care and upbringing? If she had been taught to read properly?

Precious escapes into a fantasy world where she is the star. In moments of stress in the book (is this scene real or imagined?) Precious also cuts herself:
Get Daddy's razor out cabinet. Cut cut cut arm wrist, not trying to die, trying to plug myself back in. I am a TV set wif no picture. I am broke wif no mind. No past or present time. Only the movies of being someone else. Someone not fat, dark skin, short hair, someone not fucked. A pink virgin girl ...
Her fantasy self has light skin and long hair that she can swing back and forth alluringly, small breasts, a thin physique - an image created and sustained by the media and racism.

Here the film is better able to encapsulate the fantasy ... we see the beautiful light-skinned boyfriend, the pretty clothes, Precious in the spotlight - adored, loved and the object of desire. The fantasy is vivid and disarming. And, honestly, a brief visual respite from the horror of the girl's life.

When Precious is suspended for getting pregnant a second time, an alternative school is recommended for her despite her mother's objections. Her mother Mary prefers Precious to remain as she is: abject, cooking for her, caring for her mother's needs, and devoid of self esteem which Mary seems dedicated to destroying every last ounce of.

Precious finally learns to read with the assistance of a savvy teacher at the alternative school with a pretty but unlikely name, Blue Rain (Paula Patton), who grows to love the seemingly unlovable Precious. This is Precious' journey to becoming a writer, to literally learning to write.

Precious steals a file from the social worker (played with frumpy deadpan seriousness by the pop singer Mariah Carey who is a personal friend of the director Daniels) that she is forced to go to. She reads the file with the assistance of a schoolmate. Precious is appalled when she sees in the report that it would be difficult for her to get her GED, that she should get employment instead, possibly as a home attendant. Here Sapphire tackles the logic of workfare, of forcing the impoverished to deserve what they get from the government. 

Precious gives birth to her son Abdul and debates whether she can return to school. The dishy Lenny Kravitz has a small role as a sympathetic nurse - talk about eye candy. When she returns from the hospital, a vicious surprise lies in wait for her as her mother tries to kill her. Precious flees with nothing but the baby and seeks the help of an overburdened but sympathetic nurse at Harlem hospital. She ends up in an armory for shelter that night - with addicts and homeless people - and is robbed during the course of the night.

Blue Rain, perhaps expressing all our anger and sense of futility as a reader, is outraged at Precious' situation and manages to find a place for her at a home called Advancement House so that Precious may continue her education and still have childcare for Abdul.

At times the plot feels like the plagues of Egypt upon the Israelites with one catastrophe following another for Precious. When we learn that Precious' father has died of AIDS it feels as if the reader can bear no more tragedy. She has contracted AIDS but, blessedly, her baby is safe.

At times her despair is so overwhelming that it is difficult to keep reading:
I always thought I was someone different on the inside. That I was just fat and black and ugly to people on the OUTSIDE. And if they could see inside me they would see something lovely and not keep laughing at me ...
But it ends with some sense of hope. She will continue her education. She joins an incest survivors' group (humorously referred to as an insect group initially by Precious). She learns to read and write. She loves and cares for her child. She will not return to her mother. She has hope and we all need a little bit of that.

My only concern regarding the structure of the published work is the short essays appended to the novel, written by the other members of Precious' literacy class. I wish Sapphire had found a way to include their back stories in another fashion. As it is it feels tacked on and somewhat superfluous.

But the film surpassed my expectations ... again the hype tended to keep me away. I shouldn't have waited.


Cheryl said...

Sadly, this story happens all too often in real life. Good review.

A Lit Chick said...

Thnaks Cheryl. Yes. It was difficult read at times.

Anonymous said...

wonderful ..................................................

Christine said...

Excellent review. I read the book but have been avoiding the movie for the reasons you noted. Time to rethink that position.

Michelle said...

Thanks Christine, I reviewed the book first but then revamped it after I saw the film. I had been dreading it a little (the film) both as a woman and as the mom of a daughter. I find I can't deal with too much explicit violence against women in "art" anymore. But I don't want to shut myself off from the world and be afraid of it. You know?