A Harlem teenager illiterate, obese, and pregnant with her father's child tries to break out of her horrific circumstances in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." The Lionsgate release, nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, won two Oscars.
By CBSNews.com producer David Morgan.
The helplessness felt by victims of abuse physical, psychological, sexual create the terrible contradictory feelings of confinement and of being discarded, thrown away, that define the constricting environment in which 16-year-old Claireece "Precious" Jones exists.
Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is at a loss in school, sitting in the back of class and unable to participate. Despite her overweight features, she is almost invisible.
From Geoffrey Fletcher's screenplay:
I like maff but I don't say nuffin' - don't open my book even. Just sit there. . . . Everyday I tell myself something gonna happen, like I'm gonna break through or somebody gonna break through to me - I'm gonna learn, catch up, be normal, sit in the front . . . someday.
Precious has already given birth to one child a mongoloid she calls Mongo, whom Precious' mother Mary (Mo'Nique) treats with contempt, except when the social worker stops by for a scheduled visit.
Mary regularly spews streams of invective towards her daughter, and a few hard objects as well. When the principal recommends her daughter attend an alternative school, Mary is both mocking and threatening, telling Precious she is too stupid for school, advising her to forget education and apply for welfare.
The hatred Mary holds for her daughter representing a lifetime of abuse is fueled by the belief that Precious was culpable in the sexual abuse coming at the hands of Mary's boyfriend, Precious' father.
Carl Jones' presence in the film, expressed in flashback, is like a wraith violent, obscene and his shadow extends far beyond the confines of their Harlem apartment.
But while Precious' voiceover is bereft of hope and filled with pain, her inner life is a dream world where she is accepted and admired red carpets, paparazzi, stage spotlights, hunky men who court and not mock her. In her fantasy she even looks into a mirror and sees a slim, white blond girl.
Precious' passive-aggressive resistance and tepid acts of rebellion only spark further rage from her mother. Though much of the violence is out of the audience's view, the apartment is clearly not big enough for them both.
At a meeting with her family's welfare case worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey), in whose company she may feel unusually safe, Precious blurts out that Mongo and the child she is expecting are both by her own father.
An entrance test shows just how far behind she is in literacy.
The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me 'an my muver - my whole family as less than dumb just ugly black grease to be wiped away, punished, caged up, kilt, changed, finded a job for. Sometimes I wish I was not alive. I be O.K. I guess.
But on her first day at the alternative school, called Each One/Teach One, Precious finds she shares a class with other troubled youth, each trying to rise above difficult circumstances. No longer the odd one out, she begins to slowly open up, and even admit that she cannot read.
Her teacher, Blu Rains (Paula Patton), is nurturing but also demanding. She wants her students to write in their journals every day, even of the most difficult personal stories. She leads Precious on her road to literacy, and eventually helps her find a way out of her cruel home life.
I never talked in class before. I guess now I could do that too.
MS. RAIN (beat)
How does it make you feel?
Precious looks around but seems to be searching inside more than anywhere else. After a moment ...
Here. It make me feel ... here.
The camaraderie of the class opens up a new world for Precious, and a new inner life. When another girl holds her hand during a day trip to the Metropolitan Museum, Precious declares no one had ever done that for her in her life why did her classmate do it so easily, without thinking?
After giving birth, Precious returns home from the hospital, to a mother whose anger at seeing the product of incest turns violent, and almost fatal.
As riveting a figure of evil as Mo'Nique's performance is, Mary's revelations when visiting Weiss's office (in a bid to have Precious return home) reveal a character whose psyche is by turns condemnable, tragic, mortifying, pitiable and, sadly, believable.
Filmmaker Lee Daniels produced the 2001 film "Monster's Ball" (for which Halle Berry won a Best Actress Oscar), as well as "The Woodsman" and "Tennessee." His first directorial effort was the 2005 "Shadowboxer." When he read Sapphire's source novel "Push" more than a decade ago, the West Philadelphia native recognized its world of poverty and illiteracy, as well as the main character's journey of self-discovery. "I identified with every syllable on the page," he said. "Precious' story is about learning to love yourself, and that is a universal story."
Sapphire (seen here at AFI Fest 2009 in Los Angeles, Nov. 1, 2009) was a New York City literacy teacher and poet who initially rejected filmmakers' requests to adapt her first novel, "Push," believing a film depiction would merely be corny or exploitative of large women. "It's not a rags-to-riches story, it's not 'The Biggest Loser,'" Sapphire told Katie Couric. "She doesn't lose 100 pounds and find a boyfriend. We watch small changes affect her life."
Gabourey Sidibe, who was studying psychology at City College in New York, performed in student productions at Lehman College in the Bronx. She never imagined she would end up acting for a living. "A girl like me, there's no way," Sidibe told Katie Couric. "Just because I don't look like most actresses do. And I never thought I could. And I didn't want to." But her friends convinced her to audition for "Precious," so she cut class and tried out. Sidibe beat out several hundred other candidates, and joined a select few nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in her screen debut.
The actress Mo'Nique, who has publicly discussed her experience as a sexual abuse victim at an early age, had no qualms about playing such a cruel character. "Abuse and
self-abuse are what Mary knows. You almost feel sorry for her," she said. "You have to ask the question, 'What's happened in your life to make you turn out like this? Who did this horrible thing that your heart has hardened, and is gonna stay in that place until you die?'" Here she poses with the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for "Precious," in Beverly Hills, Calif., Jan. 17, 2010.
Oprah Winfrey called Daniels when the film debuted at Sundance, telling the director she wanted to do whatever she could to promote the film. At that point, Daniels said, he knew the film was not going to go straight-to-DVD. Winfrey and writer-director Tyler Perry, who both signed on as executive producers for "Precious," are seen here at the premiere of the film at AFI Fest 2009 in Los Angeles, Nov. 1, 2009.
Paula Patton's film credits include "Deja Vu," "Mirrors," "Swing Vote," "Hitch," and the musical "Idlewild." Here she poses at the premiere of the film at AFI Fest 2009 in Los Angeles, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009.
Mariah Carey poses during a photo call for the film "Precious" during the 62nd Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on Friday, May 15, 2009.
Gabourey Sidibe poses at the premiere of "Precious" at AFI Fest 2009 in Los Angeles, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009.
Mo'Nique accepts the Oscar for best performance by an actress in a supporting role for "Precious." Having been criticized by some journalists for not overtly campaigning for the award, she told the audience, "I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics." She also credited the first African American actor to win an Oscar, "Gone With the Wind"'s Hattie McDaniel, "for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to."
Mo'Nique backstage with presenter Robin Williams after receiving the Oscar for "Precious." When asked by a reporter how it feels for the little girl from Baltimore who was told, "You won't, you will not, and you can't," she replied, "I feel like you can, you will, and I did. God bless you, brother."
Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher gave perhaps the evening's most emotional acceptance speech upon receiving the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for "Precious": "I don't know what to say. This is for everybody who works on a dream every day. Precious boys and girls everywhere. All the cast and crew, anyone who's kept believing in me. My two brothers, supported me in every way, my role models, my heroes, Buddy and Todd. My mother, Bettye, angel of my world. My father, Alphonse, who spent so much time with us and taught us everything. I'm sorry I'm drawing a blank right now, but I thank everyone."
Oscar winner Mo'Nique hugs Sheryl Lee Ralph at the Governors Ball following the 82nd Academy Awards Sunday.