Precious little to celebrate
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
Gabourey Sidibe as Claireece Precious Jones
Mo’Nique as Mary Lee Johnston
Paula Patton as Ms. Blu Rain
Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss
Lenny Kravitz as Nurse John McFadden
Director : Lee Daniels
If Joseph Goebbels was alive today and wanted to make a propaganda film depicting blacks as untermenschen, how would he go about it? Well, the first thing he would do is make the central characters physical grotesques . They would be unambiguously black . Their behaviour would be gross and feckless, their living conditions slovenly. Their intellectual incapacity would probably be demonstrated by showing a black character struggling with an IQ test. They would be generally portrayed as unable to either attend to their own lives or be anything than other than a drain on society
As counters to the blacks, Goebbels might place whites in positions of authority over the black characters and, a subtle touch this, have a hierarchy of mixed race characters between the black characters and the whites to project the idea that the whiter the person the nearer they are to being fully fledged human beings. This would be done by ensuring that the whiter the mixed race character, the higher their status, the better educated, the more physically attractive and the better behaved they are.
To put the cherry on the cake, Goebbels could show the black lead character longing for what she cannot have, namely, to be white. The overarching propaganda message would be that blacks are incapable of living independent lives without white supervision and maintenance.
Well, Goebbels is not alive but Lee Daniels is. His lead character Precious is a sixteen year old who is pregnant with her second child. She is grotesquely fat, ugly and very black. Her mother (Mo’Nique) is someone whose life revolves around the maintenance of her benefits and whose natural method of discourse with her daughter is one of screeching abuse and violence. When not engaging in such pleasantries, she lolls around eating junk food, drinking and watching TV (Precious has much the same tastes when it comes to filling in her spare time). She positively doesn’t want to work. The flat Precious and her mother live in is disordered and dirty.
Precious’ father is absent but appears occasionally to rape her. The rapes have resulted in a Downs Syndrome child and the pregnancy which occurs during the film. Precious’ mother fraudulently claims benefits for the child who is looked after by its grandmother.
The unambiguous blacks who provide the background music against which the main characters enact their dismal lives are all similarly uncontrolled in their behaviour and hopeless in their present condition and prospects.
There is a constant lurking atmosphere of violence and verbal abuse. Precious herself unthinkingly resorts to it when it suits her, throwing a young child to the ground for no greater crime than asking her a harmless question when she is in a bad mood or thumping a black boy in her mainstream school class who is causing uproar.
Precious wants to be white. Her sexual fantasies revolve around her white teacher and later a male nurse who is as good as white, When she looks in the mirror she see herself transformed into a slim blonde.
As for intellectual incompetence, Precious is depicted as at least functionally illiterate. When she takes an IQ test and makes a complete mess of it, she is heard thinking to herself how she never could get on with “them tests”. (This is more than a little absurd because Precious is portrayed at the beginning of the film as having a talent for maths. It is improbable that someone would have a talent for maths and struggle unduly with IQ tests).
Daniels uses colour-coding for status in much the same way as British directors used class in the forties and fifties, where,for example, a police drama would almost invariably cast the beat coppers as working class, the inspectors as middle class and the chief constables as toffs.
White authority appears in the unlikely form of Mariah Carey as Precious’ social worker, Ms Weiss. IN a surprisingly convincing performance Carey adroitly captures the clinically detached and terminally irritating manner beloved of those who write social work manuals. She behaves towards Precious as an anthropologist would a girl belonging to a recently discovered deep jungle tribe whose mores have yet to be neatly catalogued and whose behaviour elicits no emotional response beyond that of curiosity.
The intermediate racial coding message is primarily transmitted through Precious’ attendance at the special school which she attends after leaving her mainstream school early in the film following the discovery of her pregnancy. None of her fellow students there is white or as unambiguously black as Precious herself .
Her teacher at the school is played by Paula Patton, an actress towards the extreme end of what thorough going blacks would describe as “honky“, with light skin, Caucasian features and a manner and accent that would not to frighten the middle class white liberal horses should she be invited to one of their dinner parties. (Ever noticed how the “blacks” who achieve celebrity in the US and Britain are overwhelmingly those with a very heavy admixture of white blood? Think Thandie Newton in the world of films and Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice in politics) . The only thing unambiguously black about Patton’s character is her absurd name, Blu Rain.
Ms Rain does not merely act as Precious’ educational mentor, she turns into an ersatz social worker when Precious finds herself homeless after a fight with her mother, giving her temporary accommodation and finding her a permanent place to live. Once again, Precious plays the dependant of someone less black than herself.
You might imagine from my description that the film was the child of white supremacists. Now here is an extraordinary thing, Daniels is black. Why is a black director portraying blacks in such a depressing way and demeaning way? One answer might be that he is simply trying to ingratiate himself with his white film making peers. Or the film could even be seen as a dark satire on the view of blacks which blacks think whites hold of them.
Those are pretty implausible explanations. Try this instead : Daniels has lost patience with blacks who aren‘t middleclass and educated or at least blacks who conform to the stereotype of wastrel blacks. The most celebrated black American director Spike Lee did so some time ago, a fact he signalled with his film Jungle Fever in which an educated black aspiring successfully to a professional career is constantly fearful of being dragged back to his ghetto origins by his junkie brother and is assailed with doubts about how far the middle class white world really accepts him as an equal whatever their outward attitudes may be.
A parallel can be found in the English radical film maker Mike Leigh. Leigh’s equivalent of the black underclass is the white working class. Like many white middle class intellectuals on the British post-war left, Leigh wanted the white working class to remain true to their proletarian roots. He started by conscientiously making unashamedly agitprop films such as High Hopes and Naked! but gradually lost heart in the ideal of an eternal proletarian purity as the English working class stubbornly failed to resist the temptations of aspiring to at least the material fruits of a middle class life . Today he makes films which commonly depict the working class as losers who are barely able to survive in the modern world
But if Daniels has lost patience with the black underclass he hasn’t jettisoned his sense of black victimhood. He may find the black underclass unsavoury, but instead of blaming them he prefers to peddle that most potent drug, the prisoner of circumstance apologia. The film’s message is the black underclass is what it is because of forces beyond their control. Precious is the prisoner of her mother but her mother is the prisoner of guess what, the ol’ whitey devised (and largely funded benefits system.) To make sure you get the point the white social worker Ms Weiss says to Precious “Look at what benefits have done to your mother”.
The film just about restrains itself from saying overtly that welfare is a white plot to debilitate and control blacks along the lines of the widely believed fantasies (widely believed by American blacks) that Aids and crack cocaine were foisted on blacks by the white American elite, but that is the implied message.
The film ends on what is meant to be an uplifting note, but bottom line is that Precious is still massively obese, ugly, an unmarried teenage mother with two children, one of whom is severely disabled, no man, dependent on benefits and under the supervision of her white social worker, a rather strange set of circumstances to lift the spirits.
If I was an American black I think I would be more than a mite put out by this portrayal of black American society, not simply because of the brutality and hopelessness of the lives depicted, but at the unspoken message: blacks are prisoners of circumstantial chains which few of them can break.
None of this is to say it’s a bad film. It is well acted, moves at a decent pace with (thankfully) little sentimentality or preaching. There is also a certain massive doggedness about the character of Precious which engenders sympathy.
There is one glaring storyline implausibility. Both Precious and her horror of a mother are depicted as being vehemently anti-drug, despite living in a social slot where drugs are the norm. The idea that they would both have not only resisted using drugs but be positively evangelical about their evils is ludicrous.
I saw the film in London’s West End, an area with dozens of cinemas, many of them multiplexes. Despite its recent release and the very extensive favourable media coverage it has received in Britain, I could only find two screens, both in multiplexes, showing the film. That speaks volumes about the assessment of British distributors of the commercial potential of the film.
Postscript: At the viewing of Precious there was a trailer for another film out of the same “what do we do about the black underclass” stable , The Blind Side. This dealt with a white liberal family taking in a black “troubled” youth. The trailer suggests it is wondrously patronising (of blacks). If I can summon up the will to drag myself through it, I will write a review of it.
Robert Henderson 28 2 2010