In the films of Lee Daniels, horror is expressed through a claustrophobic Black pain that Hollywood finds absolutely compelling. In Precious, the fifth film that Daniels has either produced or directed, he returns to the formula that won him acclaim and won Halle Berry an Oscar for her role in Monster's Ball -- poor Black women are pathetic, sick and incapable of caring for themselves or their children.
Not so much buzz came to Daniels for his second, third and fourth films. The third, "Shadow Boxer," was also an odious tale of death and quasi-incest, and rated high on the gag-with-a-spoon meter but it involved a beyond middle-aged White woman played by Helen Mirren. So now, even after declaring to one reporter that he is no longer going to make movies for "Black people" (as if Monster's Ball was for us!), Daniels is certainly back to making movies with Black people sucked into an unforgiving black hole.
Precious, raped by her father, has borne two children that are also her siblings. She is illiterate. Her mother, played by comedian Mo'Nique, also abuses Precious sexually, physically and through an unhealthy relationship to food that has made Precious morbidly obese. But compared to the book, there is more emphasis on abuse heaped on Precious by her mother than by men, including her father.
Artists have the freedom to choose their narratives. But there is also a freedom of the viewer/consumer to react to not only the narrative but to the source of the narrative. We all have the freedom to interpret that a narrative, for example, on Black unemployment will be told by progressive activist Van Jones differently than it would be told be right-wing mouthpiece Armstrong Williams. Any Latino can react differently to a narrative on illegal immigration created by commentator Lou Dobbs versus one created by New York City journalist Elaine Rivera.
The film Precious is based on the 1997 first and only novel by Sapphire titled Push. Before Push, Sapphire was well-known around New York City for her poetry highlighting lesbian sexuality. The publication of the book, as well as the large advance Sapphire received for it, garnered its share of controversy within the bliterati. While Sapphire defended her work as a reflection of what she had seen while teaching reading and writing to young people in the city, others felt the book was an exercise in exploitation and hyperbole in the pursuit of recognition by the White literary world. Similar reaction greeted the 1982 publication of Alice Walker's incest- and abuse-centered The Color Purple, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. To a lesser extent, the same controversy swirled around 2003's The Known World, a Pulitzer Prize-winning tale about a Black family that owns slaves, by Edward P. Jones.
Push may not have won these big awards but with media moguls Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signing on as executive producers, Precious has enjoyed dreamy promotion, some say hype. Mo'Nique's name is being mentioned for an Oscar nomination. Her performance is exceptional, as is the work done by Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibi in the lead role. But it is also sad that these two roles are among the very few available to Black actresses this year. (Black girl: be fat, sad or a joke.)
There are some rich moments in Precious, especially several scenes with Precious at a new high school for troubled girls and in interviews with her social worker, played with perfect Noo Yawk attitude by Mariah Carey. There is no denying that Daniels (not EVER to be confused with the journalist and lawyer Lee Daniels) can deliver a compelling, even mesmerizing, tale. Best of all, there is a hint that Precious can lift herself out of her hell and break up the Daniels theme of dead Black men -- and women -- walking.