I could talk about Precious as a film, but it’s far more interesting to talk about the cultural impact of Oprah Winfrey. Derived from an Oprah Book Club selection called ‘Push,’ the arrival of Precious as a huge indie circuit hit and critical favorite is testament to her much-bowed–to influence.
When Winfrey started her book club a decade, cultural observers were skeptical. Would housewives really pick up the reading bug? Would she belittle literature? The verdict is in. You can’t go on a date without hearing about a woman’s book club, and all those artsy coffee-shop skeptics should admit that she has been a one-woman last stand for American letters.
That said, there has been some truth to the criticism. It so happens that two Oprah Book Club favorites are out as films this year. ‘The Road’ (review appeared in Screen Comment) is a fine film version of a critically acclaimed novel, the sort that lit-types sneered she would never champion. Precious, on the other hand, is both the good and the bad of what one would expect Winfrey to bring to the table.
It is powerful, but it is also exploitative. It is realistic but also melodramatic. It is a story of a young woman’s empowerment, but it is also a story deeply rooted in the Culture of Victimization spread by the Winfrey culture. The good news is that it builds into a pretty watchable film that features a tremendous amount of dangerous spontaneity. While the scenes of domestic violence in Precious might not hit that level of a John Cassavetes film in this regard, they occasionally achieve that “what the hell happens next?” momentum.
Yet Precious just as easily slips into comedy from out of nowhere (through the adolescent fantasies of its impoverished, overweight subject Clarice Precious Jones, an African-American teen-ager living a tough life in Harlen in the 1980s). This is a credit to first-time director Lee Daniels, who obviously has a fantastic touch with actors (He may one day be known as the only person to get a decent performance out of Mariah Carey.)
It’s also a tribute to the comedian Mo’nique, who plays the most monstrous welfare queen you’ll ever see; and its young star Gabby Sidibe, who brings both bravery and humor to the role of a teenage mother who has seen far too much of the worst that life has to offer. There is an exaggerated quality to the characters and the actions, but you have to give the actresses credit for reining it in. There has been a habit in our recent intellectual life to celebrate (perhaps over celebrate) hidden voices and hidden perspectives.
Following an illiterate heroine on the outskirts of society, Precious is undoubtedly that sort of film. It does a very respectable job of signaling the limits that we place on a person as a society based on appearance, and it breaks through those limits with a likable character with a smart inner monologue and a sweet disposition. It’s hard not to get involved in her struggle for dignity, even if it is difficult for her.