The theater was almost filled to capacity. We looked for two side-by-side seats and found them near the front, closer to the screen than I like to be. We also had the misfortune of being seated behind a heckler. A young guy who commented loudly throughout the film, lobbed insults at the large woman on the screen, and laughed at inappropriate moments, like when Precious (played by Gabbie Sidibe) had to fend off her abusive mother Mary (Mo’Nique).
Can you be BLACK and look at this … again, and again, and again? Can you be a black (dark-skinned) (large-sized) woman and watch this or do you see too much of your personal pain in Precious’ face to sit still? Can you be an abused woman or man of any color and not turn-away or cover your eyes when scenes of simulated incest are projected onto the screen?
Executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry likely recalled their own experiences of sexual abuse when they decided to support the film financially. Perry was even compelled to share his personal history of abuse on his website in an e-mail message to his fans. While I am not a fan, I thought Perry’s message was courageous and suspected Precious was a powerful film that could touch others in the way that it had Perry and Winfrey. Because I know the power of visual images, I was also nervous that the display of such graphic material (the novel Push is even more graphic/visual than the film in many ways) would further exploit black pain, poverty, sexual trauma … blackness itself.
Lynn Hirschberg’s interview with Lee Daniels heightened my anxiety. The interview framed Daniels as a brilliant hustler, a man with aesthetic vision coupled with dreams of dollar signs. He had produced Monster’s Ball, a film I found both painful and problematic on a number of levels. What would he do with Push?
Daniels’ Precious does amazing things with Sapphire’s Push actually. Sapphire’s words painted scenes too painful to bear witness to and Daniels knows that. But he also knows how to use visuality to draw viewers uncomfortably close to a traumatic moment and allow them to feel that discomfort and/or to empathize with it. He does not alleviate that pain but he also doesn’t make a spectacle out of it. He incorporates the humorous elements of the story, but he doesn’t use humor to deflect from the pain. He manages to end the film with hope rather than despair but not in a romanticized way.
In other words, I think Daniels does a remarkable job with difficult material. I’ll see the film again after the opening weeks have passed and the crowds die down. I hope the commercial success of the film will open even more doors for black filmmakers who want to address complex subjects. But more importantly, I hope the film can further dialogue about the lives of black girls. The entire time I was watching the film, I kept thinking how few portrayals of black girls and women are available, traumatic or otherwise. Stanley Crouch, a man with whom I seldom agree, wrote a poignant piece in The Root that captures the plight of black actresses.
While watching Precious I also thought of better known figures in urban narratives, like Bigger Thomas or even Biggie Smalls, and how a character like Precious dovetails with these figures but also how her story diverges from theirs when it comes to sexual trauma. In many ways Push and Precious furthers the exploration of sexualized racism in urban environs that Ann Petry began in her 1946 novel The Street. Like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Precious also reminds us that black girls need saving as much as black boys do. Will the “bigness” of the film galvanize a movement to end black girl pain? If the laughter of that heckler or the fallout of the Dom Imus scandal or even the bizarre events surrounding the attack and rape of Megan Williams are any indication, there is a lot more work to be done before everyone recognizes all black girls are precious.