The Problem with Precious

People are still talking about Precious.

A few days ago, Ishmael Reed suggested that the general response to the film fell largely around racial lines. As passé as his claim sounds, he may in fact be right. At least my own field research says so. Most white people I know have basically come down in favor of the film, and the few black people I know are mostly ambivalent. I’m not sure this is because, as Reed suggests, Precious flatters white audiences in its perpetuation of the “merciful slave master” stereotype, so much as it uses the Black experience as a punching bag/battle cry. Mrs. Lichtenstein, for instance, the most merciful white character in the film, is as Jewish as she is white, and “merciful Jewish slave master” is not a stereotype in wide circulation. To Lee Daniels’ credit, Mrs. Lichtenstein is merciful because she is merciful, not because she is white.

It seems more likely that the bifurcation stems from bad filmmaking masquerading as “authenticity.” Responding to certain clichés meant to register as “realistic” (ugly people, sweaty brows, hand held camera work, etc), white people – to continue the bifurcation theory – seem to have fallen for the picture’s social awareness agenda, the righteous sense that something must be done, while Black people, with a keener sense of the Black experience, seem to have sniffed out the objectification lurking beneath the massacre. Perhaps it was the relentless cruelties Precious doled out on its characters, combined with the awful feeling that one was meant to leave the picture changed, that lent Precious that certain Riefenstahlian something.

Mo’Nique’s tremendous performance notwithstanding, there is very little to recommend the film. Gabourey Sidibe is a striking screen presence, but Daniels, true to his needs as a propagandist, gives her few opportunities to breathe life, or even death, into her character. Her size is not acting; it’s a directorial idea, and a particularly facile one at that. The proof? If leaving the film, you have difficulty coming up with a more descriptive character trait for Precious than “fat,” it’s because Daniels thinks of her less as a person than as meat. This puts him closer to Pasolini than Rossellini, and Precious closer to 120 Days of Sodom than Rome, Open City.

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7 responses to “The Problem with Precious

  1. still haven’t seen it and may not, ever, but i’m giggling over your “that certain Riefenstahlian something.” Nice!

  2. Did you just compare Precious to 120 Days of Sodom? There’s no way I’m seeing it now. That has got to be the most unpleasant filmgoing experience I ever had. Imagine me cringing next to Peter Weller (who for some god known reason was taking my Dante’s Inferno class in Florence), and a class-sized bowl of popcorn, razor blades mixed in with the shit. And that was only the third circle down!

    • I was hoping someone was going to catch me! Yes, I did just make the comparison. And believe it or not, I actually love 120 Days of Sodom; at least Pasolini knows he’s in the world of allegory. Lee Daniels, I’m sure, thought he was dealing in realistic terms. That’s the truly horrifying thing about Precious. It masquerades as something it isn’t. All that “gritty” detail! Please. It was just Douglas Sirk directed by someone other than Douglas Sirk. (Peter Weller!)

  3. ok I got it:
    the black and the white of it:
    I don’t suppose Haneke’s bleached out villagers are any happier about their portrayal than Precious’ neighbors but I don’t suppose Haneke’s facing anything like the self-righteous racist-pandering-to-Berliners accusations that Daniel’s getting . And it’s not because of the different caliber of the filmmaking. It’s because our racism is directed at ourselves – while the krauts enjoy hating and disdaining guiltlessly. No one in White Ribbon has even a fraction of Precious’ humanity — not even the same species. At their most vulnerable they’re still enchantingly beautiful children or gentle softspoken schoolteachers. Not an exploding, breathtaking wounded mammoth among ’em reminding them or us how far the species can sink and how stunningly that girl does triumph. I adore her I don’t pity her!

    • It is the filmmaking! Haneke used his characters’ pain to ignite other pains, deepen the dynamic of the village, expose the German psyche, and – perhaps best of all – keep the narrative momentum going. Daniels just slopped it on. Nothing was too terrible. But did he, like Haneke, use the terrors, did he draw from them a fuller sense of Precious’ predicament? I don’t think he did. One horror to the next didn’t change anything but our level of revulsion and disgust. It seemed that was Daniels’ destination, like he was a sinister John Waters.

  4. I don’t believe anything is illuminated by comparing Lee Daniels to a sinister John Waters or to Pasolini or to non-Douglas Sirk. Daniels shoved me into a room I’d never been anywhere near before and kept me there until I escaped with Precious herself. It was a GENUINE trip. It was cathartic. I think that’s called art.

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