A GRITTY ‘PRECIOUS’ GEM

Life is hard. Life is short. Life is painful. Life is rich. Life is….Precious. (approved tagline for Precious)

I was curious and more than mildly excited about seeing the Lionsgate Films release Precious. My curiosity was piqued by the tendency of many Jamaicans to hunger for and support comedies more than any other genre. Jamaica is a place where the majority of consumers of the theatre arts seem to damn dramas and feast upon hyperbolic caricatures spawned by popular culture. The artistic mirror, if it is to be held up at all, is expected to ‘meck wi laugh’, not make us think or learn. While speckled with moments of amusement and even laughter, the subject matter explored and presented in Precious is no laughing matter, and unapologetically so.

My excitement was more personal. While living in New York, I had the life-changing opportunity to meet Sapphire, who wrote the controversial and critically acclaimed novel Push (the source of Geoffrey Fletcher’s powerful screenplay Precious). At the risk of sounding corny, after hearing her read from her stunning anthology American Dreams and seeing her perform, my life as a writer/poet/spoken word artist, in fact, as a man was irrevocably changed.

Push is an emotionally charged, disturbing novel written from the perspective and in the language of a young, poor and functionally illiterate black woman whose life has been defined by sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones lives in Harlem, New York with her violent, foul-mouthed and abusive mother Mary, who is an overweight shut-in. Mary repeatedly beats, berates, bullies and sexually molests Precious. Pregnant with her second child fathered by her biological father, Precious is expelled from her high school and enrolled in an alternative school called Each One Teach One in hopes that her life can head in a new direction, much to Mary’s caustic chagrin since the welfare cheques she gets for Precious and her first daughter (who is Mongoloid due to the incestuous fact of her conception). As Precious surrenders to the new-found anchors of really being taught/educated, having friends, being heard and listened to and being told that she matters, she begins to grow away from her mother. Things come to a shocking head after she gives birth to her second child, also borne of incest. This time she has a healthy non-Mongoloid son. As if all this isn’t enough, we learn that her father has given her a third gift related to his repeated molestation.

Deftly directed with flair and creativity by the maverick and remarkably talented Lee Daniels, Precious is a visceral, evocative and memorable triumph. Daniels, who has shown his prowess at the directorial helm of Shadowboxer and as a producer for other gems including Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, has a bold and daring way of seeing the world and creating characters that is truly refreshing. This time around he uses flashbacks, fantasy sequences (which depict the alternate realties that Precious creates to survive), present day action and first-person narration to bring this troubling urban tale of hope and redemption to the screen.

The creative team for Precious, wisely omitted or toned down some of the truly disturbing details of the book, in order to craft an admittedly harrowing story with heart and hope at its core. Had they not opted to do so, they may have ended up with a movie too painful to watch. Their success must not go unheralded. Praise should also be extended to Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry for being Executive Producers of this project.

Solid, often sparkling work is done by a great cast which include Paula Patton, Sherri Shepherd, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, along with delightful quintet of young actresses who portray Precious’ new classmates at Each One Teach One. One of them is supposed to be Jamaican, sadly, while she had the attitude down to a science, her accent was only credible once.

Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe turns in a thoroughly credible and natural performance as Precious. She must be commended and hailed for doing so well in a role that would be daunting for even seasoned actresses.

Ms. Sidibe’s triumphant debut notwithstanding, there can be no debate that as far as acting, characterization and absolute immersion the film belongs to an almost unrecognizable Mo’Nique as Precious’ disturbed and disturbing mother Mary. There is already, well-deserved buzz about her being a contender or the main contender for most of the Best Actress awards in the industry for 2009. Mo’Nique displays a depth and range that is almost indescribable. Her last scene in the movie, when (at her request) she meets with Precious and her social worker (played by Carey) is worth the price of admission.

Precious is a gritty gem. By no means an easy watch, but definitely a must-see!

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