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.