Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
is one of the most depressing films I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s also a film I can’t truly relate to: I’m white, can read, and had family pushing me to read and succeed (sometimes). Aside from my unfamiliarity with the events in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (that’s how I’m going to say it every damn time) I felt uncomfortable and sad through the entire film. Just when you think things are bad it gets worse – like Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, a film which goes from bad to worse to even worse and finally death.

**Warning: There are massive spoilers ahead but I don’t know if I can discuss this film without delving into the particularities of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.**

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is about a young black woman living in Harlem. Her mother beats her, constantly telling her she’s stupid and worthless; she has two children, both sired by her father. Eventually she ends up contracting the AIDS virus from her father. Incidentally, Precious’ mother Mary (MoN’ique), who also gets AIDS claims, “We never did it up in the ass so I know [I don’t have AIDS].” Basically, it’s a sad story from top to bottom. Every hopeful moment is shattered by even more anguish.

What’s difficult about Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is where I, personally, am approaching the film from. I am a white, college educated male who’s been given a great deal of opportunity (some of which I’ve taken) and can’t really relate to the film’s main characters. I can feel sorry for them, I can feel anxiety when watching the movie’s events unfold but I can’t really feel empathy – I can’t identify with any of the characters. There are a few things I can identify with – I’m a high school dropout, I got my GED and took adult education classes when I was 16, my father’s dead, etc. – but I approached these situations from an entirely different position and view them from a dissimilar perspective. In essence, we live in different worlds even if residing in the same nation.

In Enjoy Your Symptoms! Slavoj Žižek’s claims, “it is easy to love one’s neighbor as long as he stays far enough from us, as long as there is a proper distance separating us.” Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is a prime example of this (even though Žižek’s discussing Chaplin’s City Lights) because the film is produced for a mass audience – an audience watching a film, not a corporeal event. The distance created by the screen, and the place one views the film, reminds viewers (at least viewers from a different socioeconomic class) that the situations depicted in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire are viewed from afar, removed and therefore not a real neighbor and therefore easier to love. During my viewing of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire I felt truly dismayed by Precious’ journey, watching her go through trial after trial but afterwards I could turn off the television and resume my life – a life more privileged than the one I just witnessed. That distance Žižek discusses was there and it makes me ask whether I felt sorrow for Precious because of that separation. Would I feel differently if these events were happening right next door? Would I still feel the same outrage I felt watching the screen or would I consider the situation a hot mess and think my neighbors trashy?

It’s a difficult question, especially because if these events were happening next door it’s questionable whether I’d even know about them. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire offers a private view into a dismal world, a world which wouldn’t necessarily be recognizable from the outside. Maybe it’s best to look at Žižek’s claim from a different standpoint, a perspective discussing how people are more distant nowadays than previously. Many people living in apartment buildings don’t even know each other, demonstrating how boundaries like walls represent a gulf much larger than a few feet. Žižek’s argument applies to more than media perceptions of socioeconomic ills: it discusses the way media has distanced people from one another, demolished a sense of community, and eradicated the love one feels for their neighbor even when right next door.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire displays a tenement where everybody is distanced, primarily because of crime and poverty (there’s a scene where Precious claims the only people who ring their doorbell are crack heads). This same distance applies from across race and socioeconomic status also (and for the same reasons) but the film defies Žižek’s claim. People reach out to Precious, help her escape her abusive mother, assist her in learning, and even give her a place to stay. These people go beyond the norm, showing selflessness for the film’s protagonist. Actions like that demonstrate there is still brotherly love out there, even though sometimes obscured.

Like Žižek says of Chaplin’s City Lights, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire ends without a final resolution. The film’s final scene gives Precious a sense of peace with her mother – a scene moderated by social worker Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey) – but the film doesn’t end on a truly happy note. Instead we’re offered a bittersweet moment where Precious is leaving her mother, and her social worker behind, and takes her two children off into the future. Unfortunately we know Precious’ future is bleak (she has AIDS) but she’s now capable of facing it without her mother’s overbearing presence. This final scene, where Mary breaks down and explains her rationale for allowing her boyfriend to rape Precious is heartbreaking and disgusting at the same time: what kind of mother would allow this to happen? She tries rationalizing it, claiming Precious took her man away, leaving her with nobody to love her, but her reasoning is horribly faulty and reveals she’s a selfish and barbaric person. Its difficult leaving Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire without a melancholy feeling but it doesn’t discount the film’s impact – it’s no wonder the film took two Oscars (including one for MoN’ique).

Overall I can’t recommend Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire more. It’s a tragic, difficult film but also one which says a great deal about social and economic inequity. America is the richest nation ever and we have citizens living in such ghastly conditions. The American ideology, claiming everybody is given a fair chance, is put to the test in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire – if this were true why is Precious’ initial high school so shoddy, so deficient? It could be argued poverty creates poverty and subsidizing poverty through government assistance doesn’t break this cycle; it can also be argued you get what you pay for and if public schools and employment opportunities aren’t funded sufficiently poverty won’t disappear. It’s really a difficult issue and maybe too big to discuss here.

The issues presented in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire bring to mind Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, the story of Bigger Thomas and his insecurities when interacting with white people. Many of the characters in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire exhibit similar attitudes to Native Son’s characters – a distrust of white people being the primary one – and lying at the core of this film is the chasm created by racism and financial imbalance. I doubt it’s possible to truly understand the issues presented in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire – I live in a different world. However, it’s a film which can provoke thought and maybe spark discussions which will change the tides eventually. One can hope.

Here is the trailer, featuring Oprah:

4 responses to “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

  1. Well, am I glad I made no attempt to see this at a cinema. I saw the trailers and got a general feel for the angle when it came out, but I didn’t know it was quite this bleak.

    I knew it wasn’t my kind of movie anyway. But I did pay some attention once it started garnering all that praise, and all the Oscar nominations. I did see Gabourey Sidibe on a chat show over here. She was one of the most endearing and enthusiastic young kids I’ve ever seen. It was infectious really. She seemed genuinely humbled and happy to be there.

    So I suppose while I couldn’t say I’m a fan of her acting, I can say I’m a fan of her. Then again, I suppose you have to be excessively happy when you’re playing roles like that. What’s the opposite of tears of a clown?

    • Smiles on a genius? I’m not sure. =)

      The inclusion of Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz made me ridicule this movie when it was in theaters; I also used to joke about how Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is the best movie of the year. I was actually quite wrong and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire was fucking awesome. It was really, really, really depressing but wasn’t one of those sad films which ends up annoying me because it’s so maudlin. Instead, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire blew my mind. The performances, the direction, and the story was really interesting and deep, regardless of Mariah Carey’s inclusion. Her music sucks but this movie was awesome.

  2. I watched this movie just last night; was riveted to the screen and it left me quite disturbed. America is supposed to be “the land of opportunity”, yet we have groups of people here who cannot get to that because they’re lost in the welfare system and generational poverty. It’s a heartbreaking and diseased cycle which needs further study and revamping. At present, seemingly it is keeping a sector of our society down in a hole. There has to be a better way. I am a teacher and would love nothing more than to save those who are in similar convoluted and cruel situations as Precious, but one person can’t do it all. Precious recognized the direness of her situation, and vowed to change it, despite many obstacles. I applaud her courage and resolve. But what, as a nation, can we do to turn the big picture around?

    • Lu,

      I obviously don’t have the answer nor do I think there is a simple answer to the ills of American society. However, I do believe Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire does bring up to extremely important issues in America: racism and capitalism. Obviously there are more but these are the two that come to mind immediately.

      Even though many people deny it we still have racism in America, of both the personal and institutional varieties. Just the ways our public education systems are crafted deny important aspects of a proper education to the less privileged. One portion of the tax dollars given to schools are collected from the local community; if the community is generating less wealth then the neighboring schools will receive less money. Schools in upper class and rich neighborhoods therefore obtain more money. Considering just about every municipality in America has neighborhoods divided by both class and race this perpetuates a divide between races in regards to education. Not only that but we’re now cutting funding for schools, firing teachers and so forth which is eroding our collective intelligence. Maybe our government wants inept citizens, like Orwell or Huxley discussed, or maybe they just don’t care. Either way, you get what you pay for and if you throw down pennies you get very little. In return this furthers racism because people will equate capabilities as productive members of a capitalist society as signs of racial inferiority. I don’t see any way out without giving more money to schools and distributing it equally.

      Secondly, capitalism, as a system, always has to have losers. It’s like Monopoly, where somebody always has to end up on the bottom. Capitalism, even though better than communism, is a flawed system; those on the top got there by walking on the backs of others. I’m not suggesting we eradicate capitalism but it definitely needs an overhaul. Otherwise we end up with a portion of our population suffering and stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty. I was just in The Netherlands not very long ago and saw how a blend of capitalism and socialism works properly: the majority of their population lives above the poverty line and don’t suffer financially when a major illness or calamity hits their family. Yes, they pay more in taxes but receive more for it. Their education system is one of the best in the world (the children there are bilingual, or better, before they’re 10 years old) and their economy is prosperous. Maybe we should take a cue from them and potentially avoid the ills our society suffers from.

      Thanks for reading. =)

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