03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Pride of Precious Jones

Warning: Spoiler alert!!! Do not read further if you haven't already seen the movie "Precious"!

Few have responded to Lee Daniels' newest offering with indifference. In the New York Times A. O. Scott gushed,

"Push achieves an eloquence that makes it far more than a fictional diary of extreme dysfunction, so too does "Precious" avoid the traps of well-meaning preachy lower-depths realism. It howls and stammers, but it also sings...Inarticulate and emotionally shut down...Precious is also perceptive and shrewd, possessed of talents visible only to those who bother to look..."

In no uncertain terms, writing in the New York Press, outraged critic Armand White counters, "Not since"The Birth of a Nation" has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as "Precious". Full of brazenly racist clichés... it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity..."Precious" permits a cultural version of that 1960s political controversy "benign neglect"--its agreed-upon selection of the most pathetic racial images and social catastrophes helps to normalize the circumstances of poverty and abandon that will never change or be resolved. You can think: Precious is just how those people are (although Cops and the Jerry Springer and Maury Povich shows offer enough evidence that white folks live low, too)."

In contrast Oprah Winfrey is supposed to have been so taken by Brooklyn-based poet Sapphire's novel Push that, notwithstanding a perpetually crowded schedule she read it all the way through, and then she read it again. Admiration of this dark but forceful tale made the media-titan delighted to learn that producer and director Lee Daniels had adapted the unlikely book into his far less likely movie, "Precious". Featuring an all-star cast, including comedy star Mo'Nique, singing diva Mariah Carey, rocker Lenny Kravitz and Hollywood beauty Paula Patton, the already acclaimed film opened commercially, nationwide, on Friday, November 6th. Ms. Winfrey and hit filmmaker Tyler Perry had underscored their endorsement, as co-executive producers.


Yet "Precious" is not the sort of movie that immediately springs to mind when one imagines a 'post-racial America'. Daring to have the audacity of hope a year ago, indeed I mused about the possibility of a different kind of world, where different kinds of stories could emerge to illuminate us all. In it, familiar ones, like "Precious", would be ridiculed as totally implausible, as frightful tales so fantastic, so over-the-top, that in our newly enlightened epoch they had become unbelievable.

In New York, half of all black men have no job. So I thought, 'What if, looking at the problem of creating work for the unemployed, a new type of solution was tried? What if giving tax bailouts, tax-breaks and multi-million dollar bonuses to unscrupulous millionaires and billionaires, weren't automatically deemed to be the surest way, the only way, of creating new jobs for the poor?'

Similarly, considering both Push the novel, and "Precious" the movie, afraid of the way blacks have long been caricatured as primarily the down-and-out demons who inhabit this drama, in the era of Barack Obama, I wondered, why can't black people at last tell stories that we haven't got to tell before.

"Precious" stars formerly-unknown actress Gabourey Sidibe as Claireece Precious Jones. Against a backdrop of unrelenting poverty, in a squalid, graffiti-bombed tenement, this dark-skinned girl, who's morbidly overweight, endures a life of living hell.

In most ways, this 'hell' she inhabits, 1980's Harlem, is as utterly segregated as a South African homeland township. In those far-off days so many landlords had defaulted on paying taxes on the unmaintained apartment buildings they owned, that the City of New York held title to two-thirds of the district's residential real estate. Whites in Harlem, back then, were few and far between, with mostly light-skinned people of color acting as their surrogates at the Welfare Office, schools and other institutions of authority. Notwithstanding overwhelming bleakness, plenty of entrepreneurial 'merchants' appreciated the profitability of selling a little for a lot in such an environment.


This period coincided with the time I moved to Harlem. With Rodney King's attackers exonerated, like lots of other people, I wondered if a chronically neglected Harlem might erupt. When a South-Central L. A. mob of blacks viciously attacked a truck driver absolutely uninvolved with that other act of brutality, I was appalled. I thought, and said, 'how can we, who have suffered so, inflict such an unjust injury on someone else?'

But there I was, living in a place that's unaffordable for me, and tens of thousands of others, but relatively cheap for prosperous newcomers. Black or white, their presence brings ever more improvements, which are not signs of hope for us, but harbingers of certain disaster to come. So, more frequently than I'd like to admit, for all my fine feelings, or endless talk of equality, here am I, also guilty of contempt and loathing of those who manipulate public policy and every other means, not to improve the lot of the poor, but to fulfill the 'highest use' of property that suddenly seems desirable. I'm ashamed, and yet I'm torn. I better understand the privileged preserving inequality as an often unconscious effort to maintain power, with black expressions of bias as the blustering fury of people who are utterly devoid of the ability to control anything.

Precious experiences all this, from the perspective of someone who is far poorer and who has fewer options than even I do.


Her abusive mother only pauses from denouncing whites and queers long enough to attack her daughter with savage blows and denigrating curses. A good part of the mother's routine also consists of playing the numbers, eating down-home Southern favorites, that Precious cooks, and watching TV. Sometimes, however, to relive the tedium, it includes compelling Precious to get off of her 'fat, stupid, ass and come make mommy feel good', which is this 'doting mother's' way of demanding a session of oral sex.

Precious' mother justifies these services of her daughter, as only just. Precious' father, her mother's long term boyfriend, has lavished incestuous attentions on their daughter since she was three. In a warped imagination then, to her mother, Precious was a 'scheming temptress and rival' from the time she was a toddler. Precious her mother postulates, has alienated her lover's affections for her. That he impregnates Precious, twice, before infecting her with AIDs, and then dying, to Precious' mother, Mary Johnson, only strengthens her deluded stance.



'This is too, too much,' I said, as though making some eloquent pronouncement. My friend Michael McCollom actually was intelligent, observing how Precious' woe was relieved by her unfailing dignity, "True, just like the 'doll test', when black children prefer and choose white dolls, it's sad to see her combing her hair and imagining there's a slim, white, blonde that's reflected in the mirror. But no matter what happens, wherever she goes, her hair is always combed, her clothes are clean and her ensemble is color-coordinated. Even before she could read, Precious exhibited pride, and that's what motivated her to learn to read and to improve her life..."

"For as many stories as there are hues and colors and variations of colors in the African American race, this is just one," Oprah Winfrey recently said about "Precious", adding, "I feel about this story the same way I felt about "The Color Purple"...This feels like a modern-day "Color Purple"...The story of abuse in our community and in many communities is still a taboo subject. The story and the arc of hope and possibility and empowerment is an evergreen, timeless story..."

True enough, wicked iniquitous individuals, who could sell out their people for thirty pieces of silver, whose children, are valued little beyond their ability to increase Welfare payments exist and flourish among us everywhere. They watch dispassionately as their children are abused by others without intervening, scam 'the man' and his 'system', lie, to the world and themselves. Yet even the most odious villains often started out as innocent victims, links in a chain of revulsion that extends all the way to slavery times and back. I was prepared to hate and reject the predictable pain of Push, and "Precious". But ultimately I was convinced that both are as true a portrayal of one segment of black life as the Cosby Show and as visceral a reflection of universal suffering as King Lear is, if not as satisfyingly artful. And, this caused me to wonder anew.

Almost every African American knows, is related to, or is acquainted with a Precious Jones or her mother, Mary. In New York, even when they inhabit evolving ghettos as gentrfyers, most whites pass such people by, learning to not really notice them en passant, even as they 'politely' smile "hi," or wave in greeting. As blacks, even as rich blacks, however refined or educated we might become, these folks are not as easily evaded or ignored. Because they are our neighbors, childhood chums, close relatives or a boyfriend's cousins, from time to time our lives collide, and like it, or not, the experience makes for a true empathy that might otherwise be impossible. That's partly because knowing that to many people, irrespective of accomplishment, we are all mere Niggers, even when advantaged, one appreciates how easily one could become a grim statistic, too.

What, then, might it be like in America if whites turned black and blacks turned white? If, miraculously, whites could experience the collective dread of oppression that blacks endure, and if blacks could enjoy the almost universal privilege that whites know but usually deny; what would happen? Recalling their former benefit would the former whites respond to prejudice with the same forbearance and complacency they often counsel now? Subject to disproportionate poverty, arrest, indebtedness, incarceration, drop-out rates and crime, would the one-time whites doggedly, placidly work toward self-improvement? Abroad, in want, in the land of plenty, would they observe the ease and affluence of the formerly black, once reviled whites, docilely dreaming of emulating this success, or might they rob them instead and burn down their houses?

As an historian, it's instructive to recall a revolution triggered by citizens who felt inadequately represented and consulted, in exchange for their burden of taxes. The grandsons of our white forefathers saw a beckoning Texas and took it. Their sons, in turn, finding their profitable easy lifestyle as slave-holders threatened, rebelled. One hardly imagines that people with such a heritage, merely on account of turning black, would accept their lowly lot without complaint.


"Worse than "Precious" itself was the ordeal of watching it with an audience full of patronizing white folk at the New York Film Festival," insisted Armand White! " A scene such as the hippopotamus-like teenager climbing a K-2 incline of tenement stairs to present her newborn, incest-bred baby to her unhinged virago matriarch, might have been met by howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem's Magic Johnson theater. Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation..."

Reading such a harsh critique made it seem worthwhile to walk the couple blocks to Harlem's sole movie house. Because all the shows were sold out on Saturday, we bought tickets for Sunday night. True enough, if the audience at last weeks preview screening Downtown had been mostly white, Sunday's show was predominately, but by no means exclusively, black. Only, on each occasion, irrespective of race, those I spoke to who witnessed "Precious", responded in the same way, with a kind of reverence!

"It was deep," said one young black girl Uptown, petite when compared to Ms. Jones, but wearing gold hoop earrings and a prominently emblazoned Polo ensemble that Precious would approve of. "It was real," echoed her no less stylish friend! 'Isn't it demeaning to blacks, haven't we other stories to tell,' I asked? "No way," answered a group of several hipsters, black, white, Asian and Latino. The key point of their response was best expressed by a biracial looking young woman who said, "Sure it's not all we are, but as long as such misery affects some, it's a story we have to tell and retell, until the suffering stops..."

At movie's end, despised, abused, willfully ignorant Precious finds love and confidence in her own capability. Yet, an unwed AIDS patient, with two small children, one with Down's syndrome: what are the 'realistic' chances of this 'big girl 'from the ghetto being 'really happy', I wondered?

This question was framed against my own lifetime of lofty expectations and grandiose dreams, some of which have become, with greater maturity, little more than laughable, the trivial fantasy of misguided youth. Having been without a job for a long time, struggling with mixed success to write about and do what still seems important, the quickening loss of loved ones makes it clear that even some of one's most admirable aims, will elude one before the end.


Fortunately then, my improving security is helping to make me understand something that Precious Jones, even on her worst day, always knew. Evidently, many of those I saw the move with know it too. Even without acquiring or obtaining all one desires, to know love, and to make it, from one day to the next, is a lot to be happy about.