Keeping Up with the Joneses: A Precious Moment of Confrontation

Filed under: A "Precious" Reaction,Featured |

Here in the small college town where I live and work, we had to wait several weeks for the movie Precious to make its appearance at our local theater. Perhaps, there was some felicity in timing, because it has taken me many years to find the courage to read Sapphire’s Push, a novel I first encountered in college. I am an avid consumer of Black girls’ stories, absent as we are from the American literary imagination. Yet in all these years, I could not bring myself to choose Push as my Friday night pleasure reading.  On the Friday that the movie opened in town, I decided to confront my fear directly, to read the book and then go watch the movie.

This choice put my brain in overload, and left me unable to articulate my feelings about the novel or the movie for several days. Perhaps I am still not as emotionally or intellectually fluent about my Push/Precious experience as I’d like to be.  But this fact simply reminds me that when Black women’s stories do find a mode of articulation, the immediate aftermath is often inarticulable in its complexity.

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Push required a certain kind of courage, namely listening to a Black woman speak her experience as an abused, undereducated, and unloved, but still fiercely present self, but Precious portended other kinds of narrative evils. Recent attempts to adapt Black women’s novels to film serve as a cautionary tale of the utter inability of the powers-that-be to creatively represent Black  women’s rich interior lives. Think here of Halle Berry’s courageous, if failed attempt at portraying Janie in the made-for-tv version of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a project which managed to unceremoniously strip away every ounce of Black female empowerment offered in the novel.  Certainly, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The Color Purple is an exception, but it’s nearly 25 years old.

It was thus with a high degree of trepidation that I went to see this film, unsure as I was and still am of whether Black women’s cultural image could take another beating in the age of Tyler Perry’s insistence upon portraying us as pathological, unloving, emasculators. I also wondered whether two large black women could grace the screen, without spiraling into the ranks of asexual, self-sacrificing mammydom.

As I waited with my date for the show to begin, other moviegoers articulated a similar kind of ambivalence about what we were about to experience: “My friend said that Mo’Nique was totally shocking in this movie, but that it wouldn’t have a happy ending.” This woman, seated a few seats to my left, whose loud whisper interrupted the few moments of dark quiet before the previews began, implicitly understood this film as a different kind of Black spectator event, one that might make us squirm in our seats, one that required a final, friendly note of caution, not only for her friend and herself, but also for all of us within earshot. This was our final opportunity to hop off of the rollercoaster. But, alas, some of us are brave. Within moments, Gabourey Sidibe’s commanding image burst onto the scene as Claireece “Precious” Jones.

What I like most about Precious is the deliberation with which she chooses to speak. While being accused of pregnancy by her principal, Precious understands that whether she speaks or not, her proclamations and apologies will not change her principal’s mind. She will still be considered a student lacking worth and beyond reach. Some might read these moments as an active silencing of Precious, and I think that is true. But I choose to think that while Precious is actively being silenced by her parents, her teachers, and the range of social institutions that should support her, she also manages in certain moments to enact “strategic silences,” to let what she does not say contour and reshape what is being said (to her) about her.  In a life filled with negative pronouncements about what you cannot be, do, eat, wear, feel, and say, Precious seems to understand in certain arresting moments in the film—confrontations with teachers, parents, and social workers– her implicit right to remain silent. And she only gives up that right in two instances: when she is forced to do so to receive her paycheck and when she finds herself in and among a community of women who love her.

In the first instance, Mariah Carey’s character informs Precious “you gonna have to talk to someone, if you wanna receive your check, Sweetie.” Even in that moment when forced to talk, Precious “takes it all the way there” revealing her experiences of incest and abuse, which shock the unsuspecting social worker. In this moment, the film exposes us to our own pompous tendencies to rush to judgment about the life circumstances of those who require the resources of social service agencies and to the fallacy of believing that a college degree and a fancy title equip us to confront the ills which face us.

My favorite moment in the film was also my least favorite. After Precious announces to her class that she is HIV-positive, she wants, understandably, to give up. Mz. Rain forces her to “write.” Even after Precious curses her and gives voice to her own pain-filled, loveless life, Mz. Rain insists that she write. Now, for the realist in many of us, we recognize that writing will not cure her diseases, take away her pains, or reform her mama. But it is an unyielding assertion of self in a world hostile to black girls. It is a (productive) way to talk back. It is an opportunity to put the pieces of yourself back together again, even when things are falling apart in and around you.

On more than one occasion during the movie, I heard laughter improperly punctuating one of Mo’Nique’s character’s vicious tirades. I wondered if the folks who found Mary Johnston’s (Precious’ mother) calumny funny were insane or just ill-informed. But upon further reflection, I realized that it was nervous laughter, perhaps a psychosomatic response to a scene brimming over with familiarity or perhaps a profound sense of knowing and yet not knowing how to respond. Or perhaps, it was both. As my date and I left the cinema, he turned to me and said, “I greatly identified with this movie.” How could he a 33-year old Black man identify with the incest and rape of a 16-year old Black girl? But he informed me that he, too, had grown up in an abusive home. Like Precious, his last name had at one time been “Jones.” He said to me with a rueful smile, “Everyone wanted to keep up with the Joneses. We were the Joneses. Go figure.”


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Author: Dr.Brittney (2 Articles)

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