2009 will be remembered as the year the walls came tumbling down. Rihanna’s story put cracks in the wall. Tyler Perry broke down the walls of silence surrounding child abuse, incest, and domestic violence. He persuaded Oprah to join him in backing the movie Precious based on the book PUSH by Sapphire. Oprah funded investigative journalism into the domestic-violence-related injustices Vernetta Cockerham experienced in North Carolina.
Two movies about child abuse have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars: The Blind Side and Precious. The Blind Side is the true story of Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher that feels like fiction. Precious is based on fiction yet seems like a documentary.
Mr. Oher’s life probably wouldn’t have had a fairy tale intervention but for his football talent in a region of the country that perceives the sport to be a religion. Precious was similarly blessed by the intervention of an alternative school teacher. In a New York Times review comparing the films, A.O. Scott observed:
At the end of Precious the heroine shoulders her burden and sets off to make her way in the world. . .
We believe she will be all right because we would rather believe that than confront the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.
The Power of Hope
Claireece Precious Jones doesn’t have rational reason to hope. PUSH begins with an intentionally illiterate style to convey her despair and rage:
I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. . .This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder [Syndrome]. She’s retarded. I had got left back in second grade too, when I was seven, ’cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). . .
I got suspended from school ’cause I’m pregnant which I don’t think is fair. I ain’ did nothin’!
My name is Claireece Precious Jones. . .
Precious was sexually molested by both her parents. Her mother Mary Jones, who is played brilliantly in the movie by Mo’Nique, is an abusive monster:
Thank you Miz Claireece Precious Jones for fucking my husband you nasty little slut!
. . .He done quit me! He done left me ’cause of you. . .
Git your Jezebel ass up and fix some dinner ‘fore I give you something to cry about.
Her mother hijacks her welfare benefits, beats her, and rapes her. Precious is all-too-familiar with the invisibility of most abused children:
I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. . .
What it take for my muver to see me? Sometimes I wish I was not alive. But I don’t know how to die. Ain’ no plug to pull out.
She copes by fantasizing she is a red carpet star. When given an opportunity to go to an alternative school, she seizes it as her ticket out. Her teacher “Miz Rain” sees the light inside Precious.
Enlightened Witness, Journal, and Protection Circle
Ms. Rain serves as Precious’ enlightened witness. She encourages Precious to write in her journal every day. Precious discovers she has a talent for writing and cooking. Her class becomes her protection circle:
Now since I sit in circle I realize all my life, all my life I been outside of circle. Mama give me orders, Daddy porno talk me, school never did learn me.
Ms. Rain expands the protection circle to include prenatal care and Ms. Weiss, a social worker:
I can tell by Ms Rain’s face I’m not gonna be homeless no more. She mumbling cursing about what damn safety net. . .a newborn child. . .she going OFF. . .Before this day is up, Ms Rain say, you gonna be living somewhere, as god is my witness. As GOD is my witness!
. . .Ms Rain say people who help you most (sometimes) is ones in the same boat.
After her father dies of HIV-AIDS, Precious discovers she too is infected:
I’m going to start going to meetings wif Rita for insect [incest] survivor ~
. . .marY Had a little lamb but I got a kid an HIV that folow me to school one day. . .
I got this virus in my body like cloud over sun.
Lee Daniels Bought the Movie Rights: PUSH to Precious
Director Lee Daniels has reputation for being unable to hear the word “no.” Sapphire chose him over other suitors for the movie rights after she saw his movie Shadowboxer which was based on his life. Major studios refused to fund the project. Celestial Seasonings heiress Sarah Siegel-Magness and her husband Gary, heir to cable giant TCI, wrote out a check for $8 million.
He scoured the country and came up empty trying to cast the leading role. R&B singer Alice Tan Ridley had been approached about auditioning for the role of Mary. She suggested her daughter Gabourey (Gabby) Sidibe audition for the role of Precious. Gabby skipped school to audition and was signed two days later.
Precious Wins at Sundance: Tyler Perry Brings Oprah to the Movie
As Mr. Daniels was about to accept the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, he got a call from Oprah Winfrey:
When I first saw the movie Precious, I was so deeply moved, I immediately called up the director, Lee Daniels, and told him that it just split me wide open.
The movie won three awards at Sundance including a special jury prize for Mo’Nique.
Precious Premiers at Toronto: Tyler Perry’s 40th Birthday
The Oscar buzz started when Precious became the first film to win the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize in Toronto. Tyler Perry wrote an e-mail message to his fans breaking down the walls of silence about his childhood experiences of physical and sexual abuse:
After the movie was over, I sat there for a long time just thinking about what I had just witnessed. . .a large part of my childhood had just played out before my eyes. It hit me so hard, I sat there in tears realizing that somehow, by the Grace of God, I made it through. . .PRECIOUS is a powerful film.
. . .It brought back memories so strong that I can smell and taste them. . .I’m tired of holding this in. . .as a child we have no recourse. We have nowhere to go. We have to endure it. . .
We’re all PRECIOUS in His sight.
Mr. Perry and Oprah turned to books and their faith to escape abuse. Oprah told Parade Magazine:
I knew at an early age that I was going to have to go it alone. I didn’t waste time crying. . .I had to move forward. . .
I’m trying to allow the precious girls and boys of the world to have a voice. . .behind every stranger is a backstory that is the common denomiator we all share. . .
When you are in survival mode. . .there’s always hope.
New York Times Magazine Cover Story
“The Audacity of Precious“ was the cover story of the October 25, 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine:
At Cannes, the film received a 15-minute standing ovation.
The article reveals that Mr. Daniels and Mo’Nique were abused as children. The experience fueled Mo’Nique’s portrayal of Mary:
Lee said, be a monster. And my brother was that monster to me.
Mr. Daniels’ father was a cop who verbally and physically abused his son:
. . .he thought I wouldn’t survive as a black gay guy. He died the way he lived ~ tragically. [He was shot in a bar by armed robbers.]
Golden Globe, SAG, and Oscar Nods to Precious
Mo’Nique won Golden Globe and SAG awards for best supporting actress. Precious has been nominated for seven Oscars: best picture, best actress (Gabourey Sidibe), best supporting actress (Mo’Nique), best director (Lee Daniels), best film editing (Joe Klotz), and best writing/adapted screenplay (Geoffrey Fletcher). As of this writing, the picture has made over $45.6 million domestically.
PUSH/Precious Is a Universal Story
Sapphire’s book and Lee Daniel’s movie have had powerful backers including New York agent Charlotte Sheedy and V-Day founder Eve Ensler, who is a survivor of incest. The appeal of the book and movie are universal because so many of us ~ black and white, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, male and female, gay and straight ~ have walked in the shoes of Ms. Ensler, Mr. Daniels, Mr. Perry, Oprah, and Mo’Nique. Mr. Daniels observed:
. . .it’s a story about getting over the worst obstacles in life. It’s almost like a fairy tale. It’s really a story of triumph.
PUSH ends with a quote from an untitled piece by Precious:
PLAY THE HAND YOU GOT housemother say.
HOLD FAST TO DREAMS Langston [Hughes] say.
GET UP OFF YOUR KNEES Farrakhan say.
CHANGE Alice Walker say. . .
My favorite review of Precious was written by Leonard Pitts, Jr. who writes a syndicated column:
She is that invisible girl. . .incest victims in silent suffering. . .abandoned by their families. . .high school graduates who cannot read their own dipolomas. . .”our” children ~ failed by families and then failed again by overburdened social agencies whose job is to take up the slack, catch them before they fall. . .children we never see. . .
. . .a remarkable film. If Jack White [TheRoot.com] doesn’t see it, that’s fine. But one hopes the invisible children will. They’ll find in it a rare reminder that they do, indeed, exist.
And that they are precious too.
Update: Precious won two Oscars: Mo’Nique for best supporting actress and for best adapted screenplay. Sandra Bullock won best actress for The Blind Side. For the first time in Oscar history, a woman won for best director. I’m disappointed, however, that a movie about war won out over a movie about unconditional love.