Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (Daniels, 2009)

Clarice “Precious” Jones

I’ve been putting off writing about Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, mostly, I suppose because I’m having a hard time describing and justifying my strong antipathy, first to the novel Push on which the film is based and now to the film itself. Perhaps I fear that if I can’t justify it, others will assume justifications for me. Perhaps on some level, I feel as though when there is recognized greatness somewhere (which is different from mere popularity) it is my job to try to find it and so suspect on some level that my antipathy evidences my failure and not the film’s. Or, perhaps on some level I think I am right but don’t wish to be in this case. It is usually prudent in such cases to express one’s antipathy to cultural touchstone works in fuzzy, ambiguous, or academic terms–to convey one’s own dislike as opaquely as possible to forestall rebuttal. But, hey, in this case I welcome rebuttal because I’m struggling to understand my response, not to persuade others to have it. That response, first to the novel and now to the film, was a barely suppressed voice in my head that kept drumming,”not true, not true, not true.”

What that Gladwellian Blink reaction means is an interpretive work in progress. Those sorts of internal responses are not meant to be (or replace) critical judgments, but they have served me in the past to point to lines of contemplation that can result in them. I certainly don’t mean that I don’t believe that anything that happened in the story couldn’t happen, doesn’t happen. I’m sure there are mothers like Mary and fathers like Carl, indifferent, ineffective, incompetent, or complicit institutions that support them, and fear so deep and systematic that it smothers the human response in all of us.

Nor is my skepticism entirely enmeshed in the dread of a teleological (mis)interpretation of the universe that the narrative must (must?) inevitably support. Like with last year’s Slumdog Millionaire, responses to Precious become problematic when one attempts to move beyond the localized feelings towards the elements of the anecdote to a broader meaning that the story as a whole could support. That’s hardly the film’s fault, though, or unique to it. To blame the film for having an incoherent message–even if one ultimately feels it to be so–is to expect that it ought to be able to resolve the theological problem of suffering and evil that stymied Solomon (the wisest man who ever lived) or the poet narrating the book of Ecclesiastes in his name.

That said, I couldn’t (and can’t) shake the feeling that Precious was constructed to some sort of thesis, and that its progressions are as determined by what the authors or auteurs want us think about the nature of the universe as anything that dropped from the pen of Tim LaHaye or Jerry B. Jenkins. The epigraph of the novel is taken from the poem “Left Upon a Seat in a Yew Tree…” by William Wordsworth, and it rails against scorn and contempt, insisting that having our eyes ever on ourselves leads us to miss what would be taught by “the least of nature’s works.” It is, in some ways, an odd poem to serve as epigraph for Precious’s story, addressed as it is to the scornful man not in rebuke but with instruction, insisting that the least of these does not merely deserve our love but has the capacity to engender love in us and teach us how to love.

Sympathy for the Devil?

So is Mary (Precious’s mother) the scornful onlooker who cannot love because she has not looked? Is the audience? I certainly sympathized with Precious, and I admired some of her decisions. But when Ms. Rain starts waxing about how thinking about Clarice’s life and what happened to her made her realize how strong Clarice had to be, or when she responds to Clarice’s refusal to write because she is going to die by saying “not before you tell your story,” I felt a little bit like Jenny in the headmistress’ office in An Education. It’s not that I didn’t understand the lesson, it’s that I felt profoundly uncomfortable at the apparently uncritical way in which the lesson was accepted as truth in spite of nagging questions. Is it okay to feel contempt for Mary? For Carl? For Clarice’s grandmother? Is there no middle ground between “what one man can do in spite of circumstances, another can do” and rigid environmental determinism? The systematic way in which the film looks at Clarice as victim only, never complicit, never responsible (except when she makes good choices) is, in its way, as antithetical to the empowerment, feel-good message that (I think) the film is shooting for. Don’t misunderstand, I do believe there are people who are completely and utterly powerless in some situations, and I don’t hold them accountable for what their victimizers do to them nor for their doing whatever is necessary to survive.

Experience tells me, though, that this position is a (very) slippery slope that can lead to Forgiving Dr. Mengele or the “Parable of the Unjust Servant” but rarely in a portrait in the unquenchable, innate goodness of the moral innocent. That the film, so far as I can tell, has absolutely no interest in the “how” of Clarice’s inner world is not a fault, exactly. It’s not a strength, though, since it limits development to repetition and reduces perspective to the lowest common (and hence least divisive) denominators: being loved is better than being abused, having a voice is better than being silent, your first responsibility is to yourself (except when it is to someone else).

It is, finally, my inability to extract from Precious any sort of meaning that that transcends the narrative that makes me suspicious of it. Does it make me a cynical bastard if I give voice to the hunch that part of its broader appeal is that by primarily (only?) simply asking the viewer to be horrified at the horrific it makes no demands upon him or his conscience beyond the 110 minutes the lights are out and Clarice remains safely distanced from him and sufficiently responsive to the help given her by others? More than once while watching the film, I thought of Richard Wright’s famous line that in writing Native Son he wanted to make a novel “so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” Precious is a hard film; I don’t know if it is a deep one. I am more sure that it is free with, perhaps profligately generous with, the consolation of tears.

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