Monday, December 21, 2009
When I make a movie pick, Carolyn goes to the reviews to check on what others are saying. She especially likes the reviews that assign a grade – like B- or C+ or whatever. Carolyn looks for B+ or higher. Our movie watching decisions are usually collaborative; you learn that sort of thing after all these years.
Both of us picked up on the high marks, well – thundering raves – that a little independent movie is getting all over the airwaves and in print. A solid “A.” Probably best that I didn’t know that it was an Oprah pick before I got to the theater. I knew about the unlikely star; an unseemly obese young woman from the mean streets of the city named Precious. Well, that’s her middle name. It’s also the name of the film. Precious is the primary character from a gritty novel, Push by Sapphire. Her full name is Claireece Precious Jones. (For young actor, Gabourey Sidibe, it’s her first role.)
So I was aware of the critical acclaim, and the extraordinary size of the film’s protagonist, but I was not prepared for the dark descent into an oppressive living hell. (Warning: the film is disturbing and earns its “R” rating.) I know there is a world not all that far from our little pleasant community where hopelessness reigns; a Darwinian, cruel world. But we rather efficiently block out the messy details. We avoid those neighborhoods. One reviewer called it shocking; but it only is shocking for those of us who live in cozy isolation from the harsh brutality of a neglected neighborhood devoid of hope.
It is a raw exposé of life in the ‘hood. In public housing with forgotten, underfunded schools, abusive, absentee fathers and ever-present violence, Precious gorges on deep-fried. Her feckless mother, Mary, occupies a couch where a color television set blares banal game shows. It is expected that Precious will be a young mother, too. At sixteen, she is pregnant with her second child. The father is her mother’s husband, and her father, too.
The root causes of out-of-control obesity become clear. Precious’ only retreat is her rich fantasy life, in which she imagines laughter, glamour, color, dancing and romance. Her mother treats her like an indentured servant, which she has become. In the mother’s hell-bent pursuit of self-annihilation, she is determined to take Precious and her children right along with her.
Social workers drop by from time to time to verify continued qualification for the subsistence check. Precious’ mother proves to be up to the task, maintaining the charade of innocent victim. Precious is as illiterate as she is fat, but she is street smart.
So when a teacher emerges who sees past the grim exterior, she arranges to put Precious into a class of needy peers; a collection of young women none of whom are candidates for upward mobility. She presses them to journal. No rules of grammar. No spelling requirements. Just write. Tell your story. Every day. We will write. Write. Write. Ms. Rain pushes and pulls and laughs and cries until the girls begin to discover their own capacity for self-discovery. It is no bromide. The victories do not come easily.
It is when Precious’ mother, Mary, terrified that she might lose some of the benefits accrued by illegitimate children that she presses for custody. To win the case, she must state it in the presence of a social worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey). As precious listens to her own mother’s sick version of life at home in the dank, musty hallways of unimaginable horrors, something new is born in Precious.
It is understated, but powerful. She quietly declares her independence.
This is no Remember the Titans, with the crowd cheering the big victory in the final seconds. This is deep seeded transformation. Precious has every reason to check out. Bail out.
But as the film fades to black, with a myriad of unanswered questions, you know she has found something. Her two children are in her arms.
They are on their way to a new life.
When I was little, and my parents took me on that non-negotiable trip to church on Sunday morning, they taught me a song. It echoed in my mind as Carolyn and I walked out of the theater.Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.
“Precious in his sight.”
The Precious in this film is unlovely. We would turn away. We would find someone else. We would predict the worst.
But not Jesus.
Why not us?
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009