For the bleak little indie that made such an unmitigated splash at last year’s Sundance Film Festival (although back then it was known as Push), Precious has had a rough time of it in wide release. While real people liked it (including us), certain critics found the film racist and felt the storyline perpetuated negative stereotypes.
Like Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy. He called it “a film of prurient interest that has about as much redeeming social value as a porn flick.” Noted critical loon Armond White was just as offended: “Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious…Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.”
Those who didn’t exactly find the movie racist, did find it grotesque, such as David Edelstein of New York Magazine:
“I’m not judging girls who look like Sidibe in life, but her image onscreen is jarring to the point of being transgressive, its only equivalent to be seen in John Waters’s pointedly outrageous carnivals. Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits. Her expression is either surly or unreadable. Even with her voice-over narration, you’re meant to stare at her ebony face and see nothing. The movie is saying that she’s not an object, but the way that Sidibe is directed she becomes one. It’s only in a couple of heavy-handed fantasy sequences (she emerges from a theater in a bright-red gown to popping flashbulbs) that her eyes are windows to the soul.”
The Village Voice‘s Scott Foundas echoed his sentiment:
“When Daniels flashes back to Precious’s horrifying rapes, the wide-angle close-ups of her father’s heaving body, and of fried chicken sizzling on the stove, feel like outtakes from one of Rudy Ray Moore’s outré blaxploitation farces (or from Daniels’s own risible, little-seen debut feature, Shadowboxer, featuring Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. as oedipal hired assassins).”
And funny enough, even director Lee Daniels seemed to have conflicting feelings when it came to the film, as expressed in this interview with New York Times Magazine:
“As African-Americans, we are in an interesting place. Obama’s the president, and we want to aspire to that. But part of aspiring is disassociating from the face of Precious. To be honest, I was embarrassed to show this movie at Cannes. I didn’t want to exploit black people. And I wasn’t sure I wanted white French people to see our world. But because of Obama, it’s now O.K. to be black. I can share that voice. I don’t have to lie. I’m proud of where I come from. And I wear it like a shield. Precious is part of that.”
So then why did it just win eight nominations for the 41st annual NAACP Image Awards? Newsweek‘s Raina Kelley might have the answer:
“I wish I could agree with those who say Precious is just one more movie that feeds our vision of ourselves as victims. Even that would have been better than what lies underneath: the fact that black people have begun to accept as unchangeable the lot of those stuck in the ghetto. How else to explain that while the film is set in 1987, no one seems outraged that so little has changed in the inner city in the more than 20 years since? Precious is a period piece that feels like a documentary.”
Precious is still playing in theaters if you haven’t checked it out yet, and the awards show airs on February 26 on FOX. Click here for a full list of nominees.