Claireece “Precious” Jones is a 16-year-old African American girl living in Harlem in 1987 although ‘barely surviving’ seems to be a better way of describing her situation rather than ‘living’. Precious is obese, illiterate and pregnant with her second child as a result of being raped by her father. Living with her physically, psychologically and sexually abusive mother, Precious desperately needs some way of escaping from her world. That opportunity comes in the form of an alternative school and although the full extent of Precious’s woes are yet to come, the supportive classmates and inspirational teacher Precious meets gives her the chance she needs to break free.
Adapted from the 1996 novel Push by African American author and performance poet Sapphire, Precious is the second film directed by Lee Daniels who had previously produced The Woodsman and Monster’s Ball. The basic narrative of Precious is very simple but its strengths are in its powerful dialogue and the incredibly strong performances from its nearly all female cast. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is a revelation as Precious giving the character a sullen and defensive exterior that when broken down is absolutely heartbreaking. As Mary Lee Johnston, Precious’s abusive mother, comedian and comic actor Mo’Nique is completely terrifying and contemptible. Mary’s astonishing ignorance and stupidity may have given her a degree of sympathy if she wasn’t so viciously selfish and defiantly proud of her lack of education.
What makes Precious bearable are the moments of warmth, hope and humour that are delivered mainly during the scenes with Precious’s teacher and classmates. Unfortunately Daniels doesn’t seem to be confident enough in the material to allow such scenes to speak for themselves so he has littered Precious with small Magic Realist touches and fantasy sequences where Precious imagines herself in various glamorous situations. Victims of repeated sexual abuse and violence in the home reportedly often disassociate themselves from both their own bodies and surroundings as a physiological coping mechanism but Daniels handles the depiction of this in a clumsy and repetitive way. Nevertheless there is no denying the incredible power of Precious and while it doesn’t reach the same heights of landmark films such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing or John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, it deserves a place in the canon of bold, confronting and relevant African American filmmaking.