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Issue #1444      24 February 2010

Film review by Richard Titelius

Precious

America’s relationship with its African American people has always been a deeply conflicted one, long after racial segregation ceased and the civil rights movement lead by Martin Luther King Jnr and his successors had pushed the boundaries of tolerance and freedom.

Cultural icons such as the Roots television series of the 1970’s, Malcolm X (the man himself and the movie), Mississippi Burning and The Colour Purple have further challenged perceptions of racial equality – how far Americans have come and how far they have to go.

The latter is especially of note as it starred a younger Oprah Winfrey, in a role about being abused and the daughter of a slave.

In Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, Oprah Winfrey, executive director, reprises these themes through the backdrop of 1980’s Harlem in New York City, where an endemic welfare culture continues to pervade many sectors of society but especially the African American sector – where like the Aboriginal people of Australia they are the racial “other”. Many who inhabit these spaces lack education, access to quality health services and employment as the window to opportunity and a decent life.

Into this world comes Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), an obese, semi-literate 16-year-old mother of a child with Downs Syndrome (whom she affectionately calls Mongo – short for mongoloid) and another baby on the way – both by her father who has raped her since childhood.

Gabourey Sidibe as Precious

In the Harlem slum tenement she shares with her abusive and controlling mother Mary (Mo’ Nique), Precious attempts to make something of her life through school whilst also caring for her daughter and tending to her mother’s caprices. Precious’ determination does not go unnoticed at the school where the white principal, who when she discovers that Precious is pregnant again suspends her from the public school she is attending and recommends her to an alternative school.

There she meets other girls who are facing similar difficulties in completing their education and who through necessity are thrust together; Consuela the Latina, the Jamaican, another more flamboyant African American and a few others – all from cultures that exist on the margins of US society rather than its white centre.

The camaraderie which these women build as they try to go forward is further encouraged by their teacher who looks for the good in each of them. It is from these interactions in the classroom that the basis is laid for the movie’s rich feminist premise – that when sisters overcome their often petty racial and material differences they can rise up individually and collectively.

Full marks to the direction given to the movie by Lee Daniels (also an African American) who has the camera up close to his subjects but does not linger – who takes in the scenery of Harlem and the background of the school, neighbourhood, hospital and crumbling tenements inhabited by the characters in this stirring tale.

It is a movie with horror, warmth, tenderness, humour and realism.

In the US one in four women are raped, a woman is beaten by her partner every 15 seconds, three women are killed by lovers and husbands, and almost 220 children are sexually abused every day – most of them by a relative or family friend.

Yet as one comes to the end of the movie and after almost every conceivable horror has befallen our young heroine, I found myself asking what is going to stop this poverty and sexist and racially driven cycle of abuse.

It is not going to be by well intentioned social workers like the one played by a stunningly dressed down Mariah Carey, who puts in the acting performance of her life, or the well intentioned school principal or the passionate and altruistic alternative school teacher – these are all individuals who must bang up hard against the system to make it respond to the damage it is wreaking on its subjects. This is the system of capital which reproduces American society economically, socially, culturally and politically.

This is the edifice which one of the worlds’ richest women, Oprah Winfrey – who herself suffered abuse in her childhood – as the executive director, does not and cannot challenge. Her philanthropy may allow her to undertake many of these well intentioned projects for young women in the US and abroad in countries such as South Africa, but how will they flower when the logic of the system remains unchallenged and unchanged.

One would imagine that the movie would have a far more sceptical audience 90 miles to the east of Florida in socialist Cuba, where patriarchy and racism are well and truly in check and women and Afro-Cuban people are well represented at all levels of society, including the professions, parliament and government.

Maybe the rave reviews for the movie from the capitalist establishment around the world can be accounted for precisely because the movie creates the impression that good work is under foot, while business and profits can continue as usual. Individuals can make something of their lives which can then help them be a part of the system and therefore perpetuate the system. It would also account for the Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations.

Arguably my favourite scene in the movie is where the abusive mother, when Precious brings home her new baby for the first time, begins a confrontation with Precious which sees Precious leave, followed by her mother wishing to throw the TV set on top of her. She misses and when she returns to the lounge to pick up the remote finds that no TV game show will continue to offer consolation and that she must now confront reality.

This is as close as the movie gets to the revolutionary transformation that not only African-American society needs but all shades and levels of US society. As noted by the Communist Party of USA in a recent article on racism, “They need revolution and they need revolutionary role models, women no less than men, where men like everyone else must find their worth in contributing to the betterment of humanity through the revolutionary transformation of all society rather than by getting in on even a little of the oppression of this nightmare world. Any other approach to this will only strengthen the chains that keep us all bound.”

Now that would have made good the dedication to the Preciouses everywhere in the movie’s closing credits.

Next article –  Leonard Peltier and the notorious perversity of USA-style justice

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