Controversy outshine performance

Filed under: A "Precious" Reaction,Featured |


In setting out to adapt Push by Sapphire, screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher had a challenge. Push was told in the first-person and in the unique voice of an illiterate protagonist as she struggled to tell her story. Film does not do first-person well or naturally. It is an objectifying medium, one that instead asks us to peer through the platonic ideal of the voyeuristic keyhole.

Fletcher wisely did not attempt fully to translate the first person voice of Precious to the screen, instead providing us access to much of her interiority in a way that is more natural to film: through dream sequences in which she envisions the life she wishes she was living, dreams whose banality (red carpets, celebrity, Westchester mansion) remind us how little in the way of inspiration our culture industry has to offer. As an adaptation of a difficult source text, Precious’s screenplay is one of the most impressive I have seen in several years.

But what makes the film so powerful and so arresting is Gabourey Sidibe—from her first appearance on the screen, and even before we have a chance to appreciate her remarkable slow-burn of a performance. The film is about those who we as a society have rendered invisible, locked away in brutal prisons handed down from generation to generation. But it is also, I would argue, about the role of Hollywood in constructing and policing the mechanisms whereby that invisibility is perpetuated. This is where Sidibe commands our attention and, ultimately, our awe.

How many movies in the past year have offered feature-length central roles for women? A handful at best. How many productions out of Hollywood in the past year have offered such roles to black women? Or to overweight actors? Or to one who is, according to the models of feminine beauty forced down our throats by the culture industry, “unattractive”? Precious is precious precisely because it is so rare, and so beautiful.

And it is a scarcity that the filmmakers clearly want us to reflect on. Precious’s dreams of the life she knows she deserves are cobbled together from the paltry fare she has seen on her living room screen. Her dream sequences are devastating not because we feel how far Precious is from the Good Life, but because we feel how much more she deserves—and all the ways in which the traditional Hollywood version of that Good Life (being white, rich, thin, and plastic) contribute to her brutalization.

What Sidibe deserves—and what we must demand—are more roles. What makes this film “controversial” is not to be found in the film, I would argue, but in the fact that we have so few films starring Sidibe and Monique, so few films based on novels by Sapphire, so few films written by Fletcher or directed by Lee Daniels. But this is not the fault of the film. That it stands alone and therefore inevitably comes to bear the burden of representation is not the responsibility of a film that is in part, at least, about precisely that isolation and burden. This is not a film that seeks to represent the “black experience.” It is a film that tells (very well) one story through the vehicle of one especially brilliant performance—and in the process it serves as a clarion call to take back our screens in order to tell stories of and by those whom our society would rather stay invisible and silent. Precious indeed.


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Author: Jared Gardner (3 Articles)

Jared Gardner

Jared Gardner is professor of English and Film at Ohio State University, where he also directs the Popular Culture Studies program. His most recent book is Projections: Comics and the History of 21st-century Storytelling (2011).

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