A new film offers a disappointing portrayal of black single mothers caught in welfare’s grip.
Precious, the namesake of the movie Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire and acted by first-time actress Gabourey Sidibe, is a morbidly obese black teenager who attends school so she can keep receiving welfare checks. Precious leads a hard life. She endures her mother’s daily physical and mental torments. Raped by her father, she has two children, one born with Down syndrome, and another to which she gives birth near the end of the film. Despite her bleak back-story, however, Precious is not a very sympathetic character, as hard to like as the movie itself.
The director of “Precious,” Lee Daniels (whose production company, Lee Daniels Entertainment, has Monster’s Ball and Halle Berry’s Oscar win to its credit), adapted his film from black writer Sapphire’s novel Push. Sapphire culled her story from the girls she used to teach literacy in Harlem and the Bronx in the 1980s. Daniels’s direction wields flickers of sullen, angry expressions out of Gabourey’s ballooning face, but he cannot get us to entirely sympathize with her. This is partly due to Gabourey’s unimpressive acting, which shows little emotion or variation. Daniels’s sophomoric camera techniques also detract from his character by unsuccessfully vacillating between the jumpy cameras of the French New Wave, oblique (Dutch) angles, and super-saturated fantasy sequences. The only one that works is the cinema verité documentary style, where the unforgiving camera gives the obese Precious a looming, lethargic presence.
Despite her colossal size, Precious has little to say and less to give. Even her role as mother has been taken over by her grandmother, who takes care of her Down syndrome daughter. In her placid way, Precious is not a very pleasant character. She steals food from a restaurant. She knocks around a young neighbor who only wants her friendship. We realize by the end of the film that she has an unforgiving spirit.
Still, we are supposed to excuse these discrepancies since we’re privy to Precious’s terrible home life. Instead, the viewer wonders why the relatively clever Precious – who can trick shopkeepers and social workers, and who can lash out strongly and violently when a classmate insults her – can’t withstand her smaller, albeit much meaner, mother Mary (played with a seething angry gusto by the one-name comedian Mo’Nique)? A strange dependency must lurk behind that terrible relationship.
And so it does. Their lives revolve around maintaining their welfare checks. Precious does this by remaining in school, while Mary stays home and makes sure that Precious doesn’t falter. The checks remain unaffected when Precious gets expelled from her school because of her pregnancy, since she soon enters an “alternative” school, Each One Teach One (EOTO). But Precious’s social worker, Miss Weiss, played by an exaggeratedly plain Mariah Carey (Daniels apparently feels that Carey has to efface her normal glamorous persona in order to act), starts pestering Precious for information about her home life and her children’s father, which Precious finally discloses. When Precious returns home after a hiatus in the hospital to give birth to her new infant, Mary throws baby and mother out in a wild rage, claiming that their welfare checks were cut down because Precious revealed their family secrets.
Precious’s teacher at EOTO, Miss Rain (this time, Daniels’s inconsistent approach to make-up glamorizes relative newcomer Paula Patton), quickly finds a halfway house for her and her infant. Eventually, Mary wants to reconcile with her daughter, and Miss Weiss sets up a meeting. At the encounter, Mary performs one of the most horrific and self-pitying confessionals ever seen on film to justify her monstrous treatment of Precious and her grandchildren. Rather than empathize with her, Precious simply picks up her children and leaves the office, as though Mary’s brutal confession finally gives her license to start her life afresh.
Precious leaves her traumatic past behind with no demonstrable skills. She has a knack for numbers, but in EOTO, the incredulously illiterate Precious learns to write by inputting her daily thoughts in her journal as a form of “self-expression.” But what happens once this self-expression fails to materialize reliable paychecks? The bottomless coffers of subsidies will have to bear the cost of her housing, her medical bills (she is HIV positive), her counselling, her food, and endless training by organizations like EOTO to make her employable.
The soul-destroying welfare world of black single mothers has now become worthy of black artists. Yet, Daniels is ambivalent about its treatment. He gives Precious enough freedom to make her own decisions, but he never lets her out of the system. He wants Precious both as victor and as victim. Like him, countless staff in government-subsidised and welfare agencies constantly push and pull at the likes of Precious. Ultimately, they cater to their own fulfillment – whether financial, ideological, or political – rather than give their wards an honest helping hand.
At one time, black Americans had the edifying art of Negro spirituals, infused with religion, with which to escape the trappings of undignified lives. Now they have mediocre films and stories that moralize, but fail to inspire. If Daniels had let Mary sing “Motherless Child,” instead of performing her grotesque confessional, the magnificent spiritual would have transcended her grievance.
The spiritual’s prescription is to “Git down on [your] knees and pray” to prevent this existential loneliness from hardening into self-destructive cruelty. Beseeching to a higher being allows the possibility for redemption by forsaking the inequities and traps laid out by the likes of Misses Weiss and Rain, and their endless stream of affiliated agencies. In Daniels’s film, all we get is the false liberation of a trapped young girl, who will very likely repeat some of the same transgressions as her mother.