If I said the story involves: rape, incest, poverty, obesity, illiteracy and Mariah Carey; you’d be forgiven for thinking: maybe I’ll watch Avatar instead. But Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (to give it it’s full – and, yes, utterly ludicrous – title) is one of the best movies of the year. If you walk in expecting something “powerful”, you’ll get it. But you’ll also get a movie Prince would love; a movie which plays (in equal parts) like Purple Rain and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. This is not a work of slit-wrist social realism. Or rather – it is – but not the way you’ve seen it done before. This is the story of a girl named Precious.
We start in Harlem in 1987. Precious is sixteen and pregnant with her second child. Her first child has Down’s Syndrome. Precious’s father is the father of her two kids. She is also illiterate, morbidly obese, mute as pharaoh’s tomb, and, in two hours, you’re going to love her. It’s ok if you think that last part is a lie. Precious has the default deadened expression of a fridge door. But. She also has an imagination (so you won’t be looking at 80s Harlem for two hours). And she has tenacity (this isn’t the story of a poor girl falling apart). And she has friends (including the best-looking remedial English teacher on the planet). Think of this as Rocky, with books.
Director Lee Daniels thinks Precious is beautiful (end of discussion). You’ve gotta love this guy; in part, because: he’s damn right!; but also because his attitude pees in Hollywood’s rosebush. Movies with female leads are rare enough, but movies with big (!) black (!) women in the lead have (until now) been restricted to Big Momma’s House, starring Martin Lawrence. Daniels’ doesn’t so much ignore this obstacle as drape it over his movie like a pageant winner’s sash. He’s brash, verging-on-coarse in his approach to film-making. Like Spike Lee, he doesn’t mind upsetting delicate sensibilities or giving characters silly names (Precious’ English teacher is called Blu Rain). The first shot in Precious is a red scarf hung from a streetlight (and that’s the least of what’s unexpected). Thing is: his ideas work.
Casting Precious must have been a nightmare. She has to look inscrutable (at first), then stoic, and then she has to scale mountains. Lucky for Lee Daniels, he found Gabourey Sidibe. She is the flowering heart of the movie. I defy you not to root for her. Even when she starts the movie saying nothing, her silence is unbowed. She’s from the indomitable America. She’s a worker. Come wind, rain, shouts, threats – poison fit to kill ten of Hamlet’s father – she is going to prevail. You never doubt it. When Precious’ mother pushes her down the stairs, she gets up and she keeps walking. When she smiles as she lifts up her children, you wanna cheer.
Mariah Carey’s moustache is also a surprise. It’s there (like a lot of things) because Lee Daniels is going for broke. An unwaxed lip! Dear God! And he shows women’s underarm stubble too! And women’s skin without makeup! (Fear not, this doesn’t all apply to Carey.) Mariah plays a social worker. She looks like she’s getting ready for bed on a no-sex night. (The way all the women in Precious look, with the exception of Blu Rain.) You quickly forget she’s Mariah Carey, Friend to Rappers and Unicorns. Likewise, Lenny Kravitz persuades you he’s a male nurse, not a moonlighting rocker. They’re there, like the red scarf, because Precious favours magic realism.
The one thing that’s missing is a cameo by Prince. He seems like exactly the right guy for Precious to fantasise over. 1987 was the year he released Sign O’ The Times, a song about AIDS, drugs, poverty and murder. Like Precious, it doesn’t sound like anything anyone would love, but, like Precious, it’s the way it’s done that makes you listen. Never underestimate a new voice. Lee Daniels has thought his way through this story. He knows that the premise is daunting, that his heroine’s circumstances are bleak, that Avatar is playing next door… But. This movie is not an endurance test. Like Prince, you get a few dark patches, but you also get Purple Rain.