There is no happy ending for Precious. This isn’t a story of redemption or triumph over tragedy. Precious is a story about Claireece Precious Jones, an obese, illiterate, 16 year-old girl in pre-gentrified Harlem. She is terrorized by a viciously psychotic mother, pregnant twice over by her father, and wholly ignored by society. It’s gut-wrenching, at times unbearable, and phenomenal.
The film is based on the novel Push by poet and author Sapphire. The 1996 novel, in sordid detail and halting dialect, illustrates unimaginable oppression and hardships. “Push was a story stuck in my head, like Jell-O when it sets all of a sudden,” says Sapphire. “I’d worked with youth and I lived and taught in Harlem. These were situations that were haunting me. Things that I’d heard about. I needed to get it in print.”
The depth of sadness and tragedy is thick and pervasive but director Lee Daniels, who is known for his controversial and dirty images of gritty reality in films like Monster’s Ball and Shadowboxer, kept the set light between takes. “When I said cut, it was a party,” says Daniels. “It was God’s way of protecting us from the darkness, soothing our souls from the journey we were on.”
Daniels, a former casting director, employed an unconventional mix of artists to create a stellar and dramatic cast. Pop superstar Mariah Carey plays a plain Jane hard-nose social worker and rocker Lenny Kravitz has a supporting role as a compassionate male nurse. The show stopper is the usually jovial and raunchy slap stick comedian Mo’Nique who portrays the abhorrent matriarch who terrorizes Precious throughout the film. She brilliantly embodied the nastiest bits of a twisted hateful abuser. Lead actress Gobourney “Gabby” Sidibe, a vibrant and popular 26 year-old New Yorker, landed the role, which is her first film ever, on a whim. An avid reader and fan of the book she stumbled onto the audition. “I heard about the open casting call and I just went. I had done a few plays at Lehman College in the Bronx. I was a pirate in Peter Pan and the good witch in The Wiz. Not exactly Tony award winning stuff,” chuckles Sidibe. However, she tucks away her vivacious personality and digs deep to become the lonely and tormented Precious. “I recognized her in people I didn’t want to hang out with. While reading the book I felt so much guilt because I had turned my back on girls like Precious. So all that guilt turned around in me and opened my heart and made me compassionate. I felt that doing the role was my way to redemption for all my negative feelings towards girls like her. I had to do Precious justice and tell her story.”
Precious is a girl completely shut out form the world. Her life is reduced to survival in a small, dark, rank apartment with a tyrant for a mother. The television blasts Million Dollar Pyramid while she fries hairy pig’s feet fantasizing about being beautiful with an adoring light-skinned boyfriend. She is the girl that fell through the cracks of the system, left to fend for herself at the bottom of the barrel. Push is enveloped in these ideas of hopelessness and neglect. At every turn the situation gets worse with only a sliver of happiness, only a hint of a smile. As one sided and heart aching the story is, it can be told a million times over.
The dilapidated and ignored ghettos of New York City in the late 80s are completely foreign for a large majority of film festival audiences and critics alike. Although this film in many respects can be criticized for its disgusting and often times over the top appalling depiction of poor welfare dependant black life (like the scene where a 300 lb Precious runs down the street with a stolen bucket of fried chicken), it resonates. It doesn’t stay with you because you feel sympathy, it sticks because it’s a reminder of a wretched place you never have been and can’t imagine. “This is the truth,” says Daniels on why he chose this story. “It’s a dirty story of a truth that needed to be told.”