Friday, October 30, 2009

Precious, The Film

Last night in San Francisco at the Metreon, a group out of LA and Atlanta called Liquid Soul Media hosted a screening of Lee Daniels's film,"Precious." I hosted the panel which consisted of Paige Harris, community advocate, Dr.Su Y.Park, psychologist, Francis Moore, Alameda County Network for Mental Health Clients, and Andrea Broxton, Girls Incorporated for Alameda County. The theatre was full and after the film about a third of the audience stayed for the discussion. We began the evening with a call to the ancestors.

I'd invited Lauren Whitehead, Youth Speaks Program Director, poet, singer, teacher, to share work with us that evening which would promote healing. She's performed at the John F. Kennedy Center in D.C. and at Sundance where Precious debuted. I saw her recently in Afro Solo 16 performing Written in Blues, a piece which explores the themes of sexuality, violence in relationships, and music.

Yes, the sister was as we say, qualified to change the energy that evening from despair into hope--like "Precious" did on the screen.

Precious is the kind of film that makes one seek comfort in someone else's's the kind of experience, like all Lee Daniels's films that make one uncomfortable and uneasy. His films are intentionally disturbing. Nothing I've ever seen of his has left me feeling comfortable or unmoved. I haven't wanted to own any of his films or watch them twice, but I have never forgotten any of them, Shadow Boxer and The Woodsman two of the most disturbing. I'd never been in the head of characters like the ones I meet there and I wasn't sure I liked the experience. But then I don't know if Daniels wants his audience to like themselves after his films or leave the way they came. He seems intent on taking us on a journey, one where we explore areas outside our comfort zones.

I remember when Shadow Boxing came out on DVD and the director and I spoke about his raising kids, one a relative, and his audience. He also spoke about the power of film, his passion for storytelling, especially those stories which are not told, the stories of people he has met or know of. I am not certain if any of these stories he has told so far are removed from some reality, however distant...but then it has been more than a few years since we spoke.

I think Liquid Soul's intentions were good, however, I hope Oprah and Tyler and the other producers have plans to invite community based organizations to table after screenings and leave brochures like the one's connected to the website for the movie. The film brings up emotions victims and perpetrators might not be comfortable with and it would be a shame if someone was hurt or hurt someone after seeing Precious. Visit

Lee Daniels’s “Precious”

A Review

Love has everything to do with it, and Precious shows us that where there is love, there is no intent to harm or cause pain. Precious's life was the antithesis of love, how many children and adults confuse pain for love until they learn better?

Based on Sapphire’s novelPUSH, Lee Daniels’s film “Precious,” opens in Bay Area theatres, Nov. 6. At a community screening Thursday, October 29, 2009, emotions raced as patrons tried to reconcile their emotions and intellect swiftly in order to respond to questions concerning this character, "Claireece Precious Jones," portrayed well by newcomer to the screen, actress, Gabourey Sidibe. What was really amazing about the film was how well the creative team, key among them: writer Geoffrey Fletcher and director of photography Andrew Dunn, BSC, with executive producers Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Lisa Cortés, and Tom Heller, were able to tell this story in a way that made one member of the audience in a discussion following the film remark: “I think society failed the mother too.” Mo’Nique as “Precious’s mother “Mary,” was cast in a role which was not only not funny, it was absolutely despicable. The actress never broke character, if anything she grew worse, yet, portrayed Mary in such a way that one does feel sorry for her even as one rooted for Precious to stay away from her.

Precious, besides being a film about the brutality of enslavement visited on many children in inner-city homes and the power of love to heal the most terminal of pain, the film is also about the power of forgiveness and how the first step in the healing is facing the fire and entering it with one’s eyes open—Sankofa.

The emotions running through the theatre Thursday evening ranged from disgust to disbelief—how bad can it get for this 16 year old child, pregnant with her second child by her father—Answer: a lot worse. The physical, emotional and psychological violence visited on this “precious child” who lived in a dream state—reality a bit too much to handle, was unbelievably vicious. Yet, Precious was not the only child neglected in her community–the film shows other children facing similar pain—another little girl, younger than Precious is not sent to school regularly, nor is her hair combed. Later on in the film we see her with two black eyes.

Both mothers, Precious’s and her neighbor’s mother, seem to keep the children around for the Welfare checks. Precious’s mother tells her daughter repeatedly to drop out of school and go down to Welfare and get a check and the Welfare department wants her to stop going to school once she has her GED and get a job, even if the job averages $2 an hour. Though set in Harlem in 1987, the literal distance is shortened when one thinks about No Child Left Behind and all the children like Precious who can't seem to keep up 22 years later.

At the alternative school Precious’s life changes for the better. One teacher, Ms. Blue Rain, actress Paula Patton, opens up the world to her students through literacy—reading and writing. She has her students tell their stories –to write, even when life is most painful…to write through the pain and it is this action that Precious learns to value herself and lift her voice.

"Precious" is a familar character in black literary history—characters like "Celie" in The Color Purple, "Pecola" in The Bluest Eye, and "Antoine" in Antoine Fisher, reflect a legacy closely tied to the antebellum baggage black people carry as they race to freedom without a notion of how one evades the slave catchers who lie in wait.

Opal Palmer Adisa says in one of her poems, “I Name Me Name,” each of us has the power to decide what we will respond to, a choice which in Precious’s case involves renaming herself—claiming her life. When she is encouraged to put her second child, a son, up for adoption, she chooses to keep him—it is a choice that saves her life. Now that she has her son to live for, she makes other choices she was afraid to consider in the past.

Filled with close tight shots, indicative of the stylistic choices Lee Daniels’s makes in his films which are character driven, whether that is actor Cuba Gooding as a hired assassin in Shadow Boxing or Halle Berry as lover of the man who killed her husband in Monster’s Ball, or even the pedophile in The Woodsman, one wonders how does Lee Daniels make his audience care about a pedophile or a murderer or a child molester or a brut, which Precious’s mother, Mary is? Daniels humanizes these people and makes—I say makes, because I am not a willing participant in this group therapy session, nonetheless I stay. Why is that? Why do I care what happens to Mary? I am also curious about Mary's back story which Sapphire doesn't go into either in the novel. Why is Mary's mother afraid of her? What happened to her to make her so mean?

"Precious" doesn't say much. In abusive households one wishes for invisibility--there is safety in silence and space, so what Daniels does is let the audience into his character's head. We see her thoughts which are tangible-- colorful, sometimes scary, but often funny. It is in these moments that the costume designer, Marina Draghici shines, as Sidibi shows a sophistication in her role the sullen sober "Precious" seems incapable of. Though striking, it is here that the hope lies--even when being raped or forced to eat when not hungry. It is these journeys "Precious" invites us along on which make the film even slightly bareable. Lee Daniels makes his audience do the hard work which begins after the film is over...for the rest of our lives. His Precious extracts a commitment without having us sign on any dotted lines.

"Precious" makes friends in her new school, meets a man, Nurse John, actor Lenny Kravitz, who respects his little friend and treats her well. In this way, Precious learns that not all black men treat black girls badly. There is magic in "Precious," the child, and I think it's magic that keeps Precious moving forward and getting up from the sordid bed her mother has assigned her and life's circumstances keep her tied to...but like all things in life, there comes a time when she is able to cut the cord and move on. Somewhat like the animals who stay cowered until they realize that the cage is in their minds and that they are actually stronger than their perceived masters, Precious realizes this also over time and makes her escape.

If nothing else "Precious" knows the truth, she knows it and at some point she stops covering up her mother’s falsehoods to those who intrude into their lives, invited and uninvited--it's hard to live in a city on public assistance, your kid in public school and remain anonymous. So, despite the consequences—which as already stated are brutal, "Precious" tells, she tells about her mother Mary, who stays at home all day and watches television, masturbates and eats,she tells on her father who rapes her again and again, she tells about Mongo short for Mongoloid, her daughter who lives with Precious's grandmother.

I am not impressed by Mariah Cary's Ms.Weiss. I don't understand her character's, a therapist, attitude. Ms. Weiss seems to be just collecting a check; the tears at the end of the film come a bit late. Is she crying for Precious or her mother or both? Whatever it is, Precious states there is nothing more Ms.Weiss can do for her. The mother hardly ever leaves the house, it’s just her and the cats. "Precious" cooks and shops. Mary is stuck in the apartment with the shades drawn, but "Precious" is not.

That education can save someone’s life is not a cliché; it's not just the knowledge, but the teacher who takes an interest in a child and goes that extra step, like the principal who visited Precious’s home and told her via the intercom--Precious's mom refused to let the principal come up to the apartment, about the alternative school, Each One/Teach One. It doesn’t take a lot and just one moment can change the direction of a child’s life in ways one can’t even imagine.

Why is the dred locked teacher in PUSH cast as a light-complexioned lesbian in Precious? The teacher in the novel is a black woman Precious can identify with; she is the color of Precious, who up to that point sees herself as black and monstrous. Daniels' "Precious" reminds me of Marguerite in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings who wants a light-complexioned boyfriend, so that she can have a pretty son--pretty meaning not dark-skinned and nappy haired like his mother. There are no heroines or heroes who look like Precious in the film, but Sidibe plays it off looking fly in her stylist fashion statements: hair always together, clothes and jewelry reflecting a certain confidence visibly absent elsewhere.

Set in an America where precious children living in certain zip codes don’t receive the kind of guidance or attract the kind of concern reserved for children in other zip codes and economic price brackets, Precious-the film, is a wake-up call for those of us in positions where we touch the lives of vulnerable populations to pay closer attention, to listen to their stories, to not ignore the signs.

This is not a film for little children (13 and younger)--language, violence, sex, nor is it a film one wants to see alone; however, it is certainly a film does not want to miss. Precious is a Middle Passage tale, it is a Maafa Commemoration because the child lives to tell the tale and one has hopes for a continued healing, but there are so many more on board the ship about to get tossed into the cold water. It for these children and their parents that we must watch and figure out how to get life jackets on them and bring them to shore where we can pump soup into their stomachs and love into their hearts.

Photo Credit: Copyright 2009, Sara Marie Prada


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