Revolution #184, November 29, 2009
The Potential of Precious Girls Everywhere
As the postscript to Precious states, this film was made "for precious girls everywhere." The unseen, unheard, spat upon and detested girls who suffer every conceivable abuse the world over. And this film not only splits you open with that abuse, but makes your heart sing and ache for the potential of those girls—for what is snuffed out, what endures and what can flourish.
Spoiler warning: The following article reveals crucial plot points about the movie Precious
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire tells the story of 16-year-old Claireece Precious Jones growing up in Harlem in 1987. She is pregnant for the second time and HIV positive, having been raped by her father her whole life and abused by her mother. She is locked into the brutality of her family. An uncaring school system gives her passing grades despite her almost complete illiteracy. She acts as invisible as she is to the world. She is mocked by classmates. And on the street, boys greet her with sexual taunts which quickly turn into physical violence when she ignores their jeers.
The film traces through a transformation for Precious. She is helped, nurtured and challenged by Blue Rain, a literacy teacher in a pre-GED program. And she is surrounded by young women like herself—some who are poor, formerly strung out young mothers, others who are beaten and cast out but all of them caring for each other in what is otherwise a largely uncaring world. These are people that rarely fill the movie screen, people living in the bottommost part of our society—"fat Black girls" and "welfare mothers" who are usually only ever blamed, hated or looked down on, if looked at at all—but they are full humans, and here, portrayed as such.
Mary, Precious's mom, stays holed up in the house, smoking alone with her cats and brutalizing her daughter—with cold insults and vicious beatings. Surrounded by boredom and bitterness, Mary is broken; and she is working at breaking Precious. Describing home, Precious says she could just "eat, watch tv, eat, watch tv, eat, watch tv" with the shades drawn, aging to die in darkness.
Precious is a work of courage and the performances are raw and as complex as the characters they portray. Mo'Nique, who gives a stunning performance as Mary Jones, said when the director, Lee Daniels, called her to ask her to take the role, he said "this could fuck up your career." But she, and the entire cast (including first-time actress Gabourey Sidibe as Precious), plunged in with brutal honesty.
The film is beautifully made—Harlem a shining sight, light within the grime. Precious is often clothed in bright beads and an ever present bright orange scarf that she finds on the street; a piece of light also discarded. Though illiterate when the film begins, her mind is ever active and the bleakest moments are interlaced with colorful dream sequences. She escapes into vibrancy and dazzle, becoming a shimmering and smiling, adored beauty.
She fantasizes about her white math teacher whisking her off to Westchester, of signing autographs in front of the paparazzi with a lightskin boyfriend by her side. Precious aspires to dance in BET videos, and pictures herself white and blond. Highlighting in particular the way dark skinned Black women are viewed and the way they view themselves. The unattainable and unhealthy beauty standards for women have a double cruelty for dark skinned Black women that impacts how millions of them go through the world hating even the skin they're in.
But in these imaginings, there is also humor and depth. She goes on, she dreams, she wants to be heard. In showing the reality, the humanity—and the great and painfully suppressed potential—of one of society's oppressed and demonized... and in doing this with power and artistry, this movie makes a real contribution. But it does more, as well.
Collective Resonance: "I Am Also Precious"
What does it mean to have this whole section of society treated and feeling invisible? What does it mean that there are, indeed, "precious girls everywhere"—tens of millions of girls and women in our society who see their lives reflected in this story? After taking a test in a new alternative school where she can only write her name, Precious describes the feeling that, "these tests paint a picture of me and my mom as ugly black grease to be wiped away."
A young Black woman I saw this with talked afterwards about feeling like she is never shown on film, her stories never told. And this is what Precious is able to achieve—by finally becoming present, she makes the lives of millions of women in our society present.
After speaking in class for the first time in her life, Ms. Rain asks her how that feels.
"It makes me feel here," Precious replies.
The film has tapped into something very deep and otherwise mostly hidden. Lee Daniels said what has surprised him the most is the story's universality and its broad resonance. On opening night at the Sundance Film Festival, Mo'Nique spoke publicly about being abused by her older brother. Lee Daniels talks about being beaten by his father for being gay. By the hundreds women are speaking out—in theatre lobbies and on online forums where I've seen a few use the tagname, "I am also precious."
Recently, Revolution went to Harlem and Times Square, where many screenings of Precious were sold out. One distributor wrote, "several Black women testified that ‘it was real'—all the abuse in the movie is real and widespread and no one wants to talk about it." Another Revolution distributor talked about conversations he overheard between perfect strangers—women telling each other the most deeply personal, hurtful stories.
This defies the criticism from some that what is portrayed in Precious is overstated, or casts Black people in a negative light. While it's true that mainstream culture promotes minstrel-like, belittling and degrading stereotypes of Black people at every turn—this film is nothing of the sort. It exposes a hidden reality for millions of women in our society, and the acute ways this takes expression among Black women. And it poses the question of why this is so.
After the film and on the net, the testimonials are pouring out, "I was raped by my cousin." "My dad's brother touched me repeatedly and I've never told anyone. When he died, I spit on his grave." "I am a counselor that works with survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse on a daily basis. It is disturbing how Precious is a reality for so many. The story needs to be told because too many have been silenced for too long." "i was a child... touched by my stepfather, which i was told [was] something you do not talk about." "I too have been molested by a family member and it's a secret that no one knows about, not even my parents." "My daughter has been raped by my mother's son." "I was physically, mentally and verbally abused by my dad; molested by my grandpa and a neighbor and ‘hit on' by an uncle and one of my father's friends, becoming promiscuous and having my soul broken, wounded and battered because I was looking for someone to love and accept me. I was tossed like a piece of garbage; used and kicked to the curb to be dumped with the rest of the raw sewage." "There are so many secrets in the family! It's time to EXPOSE!!! Too many people are in bondage!"
Outside the film, a woman listens to someone selling Revolution, and just shakes her head, repeating: "This has to stop. This has to stop. This has to stop."
A "Monster"—But One Created, Not Born That Way
After witnessing the film—and even more so, the visceral reactions to it expressed by so many, and in particular (though by no means only) women of color—you have to ask: why is this experience so universal? Why are there girls like Precious everywhere? The crushed and broken in their millions, harboring secrets and pain, stories they keep to themselves—of brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers, husbands and boyfriends molesting them as children, young girls and women.
And what creates a woman like Precious's mother, Mary?
When Precious finally stands up to her mother, Mary's violence reaches a crescendo and she is ready to kill her daughter. As Precious is thrown down the stairs, the film cuts between near death brutality and smiling snapshots of Mary and her happy chubby cheeked baby, Mary is joyful and beaming and you know there was a time she thought her daughter was precious. This climax poses it sharply—Mary wasn't always the way we've seen her in the movie—how did Mary become this monster?
In a pivotal scene in the film, this question is answered. Mary is meeting with Precious and the social worker, Ms. Weiss. Mary describes the calculation she made when her boyfriend and Precious's father, Carl, reached for her baby daughter during sex. There are many details Mary forgets, including when Precious was born. But she remembers with crystal clarity when this began. Precious was 3 years old, Mary protested but gave in to hold on to her man.
She knew it was wrong, she says, but what would happen to her if she lost Carl? Who would love her, who would care for her, who would touch her? She thinks all she has in the world is this man and all she can do with her being, her heart and her mind is to please him. Her entire sense of self-worth—of even being someone—is bound up with having a man—no matter how abusive that man may be. "You don't know what real women do," she says to Precious in a fit of abuse, "real women sacrifice." So Mary calculates, she exchanges and sacrifices: take my daughter, but keep me. And both are Carl's to discard.
From Where Does All This Pain Arise?
Mary begins the monologue in Ms. Weiss' office with a telling line, "you godamn right I wanna see Precious and my grandson, because they belong to me." Think about it: "they belong to me." And at this, we do not flinch. In the brutal confines of the family, children and women are property, possessions to be owned and exchanged.
We are told and taught that the family is a divinely inspired eternal institution, forged out of love and caring. In fact, the form of the family has changed over the centuries.
Our ancestors traced the lineage through the mother and lived in kinship units that did not involve relations of domination, ownership or suppression. Only with the development of society's ability to produce a surplus over what was necessary for mere survival, and the rise of private property and the division into classes on that basis, did the modern family arise. Once that had happened, it began to matter which child belonged to which father so the surplus wealth, or lack thereof, could be passed down. The family enforced a division of labor where the woman was responsible for providing the man with children and the raising of children, and the women and children were the property of the man. Look at the ten commandments for an example, where god instructs: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house, wife, male or female slave, or ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (Along with upholding slavery, this makes clear all this "belonged" to the man.)1 And look at how the patriarchs in the Old Testament held scores, and even hundreds, of wives at one time—which shows how saturated this institution is in male supremacy and how it has, in fact, changed over time.
Even the word family is extremely telling—it comes from the Latin word "familia" (meaning "a household of slaves") and was used in ancient Rome to refer to the male-headed household in which not only slaves and servants but also wives and children were counted as the man's property, over which he held the power of life and death. Down through today, virtually all men are conditioned from the time they are born to think women are there to serve them, and that even the most oppressed man can still be a master in his own home and deserves a woman to subordinate her life to his.
The family is a killing confine—for the body and spirit. And the pain is dual—while the family is the place that one is supposed to find the most solace, warmth and heart, it is in reality the most dangerous place for women and girls. Within the U.S., a woman is beaten by her partner every 15 seconds, 3 women are killed every day by lovers and husbands, and almost 220 children are sexually abused every day—most of them by a relative or family friend.2
The story of Precious is not an anomaly but a distillation. While not every woman suffers incest, and not every woman is battered… within the confines of the family in today's society, every woman is told, in thousands of ways, that she must subordinate herself—her life, her dreams, her opinions, and in the most extreme but all too common cases her physical safety and sexual autonomy—to the man. Within these confines, women are (as our Party's Declaration states), "evaluated essentially in terms of their usefulness to men, as mothers and wives and objects of sexual gratification."3
It is in another direction where Precious contains glimmers of genuine hope. Ms. Rain says to Precious that she's having a hard time with her own mom, who won't talk with her, won't accept her because she's gay (a discovery Precious herself has to work through). In talking about having to deal with hardship, Precious says she thinks there are people who go into a tunnel so dark, they have to light their own way, but when they come out, they're still shining and not just for themselves but for those around them. "Ms. Rain and me are some of those people."
When Precious says she wants to keep her kids, wants to look there for her solace, Ms. Rain struggles with her, she's too young and needs to strike out on her own. This is not a struggle Ms. Rain wins, but a different framework is being posed. What people are constantly told to seek to find in family, Precious finds only outside of the family—in Ms. Rain's challenge that she write her heartache out and in the laughter and respect of her peers. Love is not what rapes you, love is not what beats you and makes you sick. Love is in the struggling together and relying on each other. It's in the light of the orange scarf which Precious shares with the little girl with the black eye being insulted and demeaned, helping someone else to make it through.
Intertwined Ropes of Oppression
For Black women, the extremity of this is intensified and doubly bound. 1987 in the Harlem projects, it's the crack epidemic, Precious's welfare may be cut off as part of the large-scale transfer of women from welfare to working at below welfare wages. She's not just a poor woman; she's a poor, Black woman—up against it at every turn. The different ropes of oppression get bound up so tight, wound around each other, grinding everything down and tying a knot so densely packed and tangled together it is potentially all-consuming with its density and pressure.
Lee Daniels talks about his own father who beat him for years. It began when a 7-year-old Daniels put on his mom's red patent leather pumps and sashayed down the stairs with his hands on his hips. He said he thought they were sexy. His father found this intolerable, Daniels said his father did what he was taught to do.
In talking about where this abuse comes, Daniels told this painful story, "I remember someone calling him the n word in front of me, one of his bosses or something. And we got in the car, and I said, why did you let him do that to you. I was 11... and he slapped me... hard... because I was talking back to him. That was his way of dealing with the frustration and the pain that he felt, and the embarassment he felt and the castration he felt."4
Another example that is all too real—a grown Black man treated as a child and worse. The rage at that festers and boils and is channeled in the most harmful of ways.
It Doesn't Have To Be This Way!
As should be clear from the universality, this situation is not a product of one individual's poor choices or irresponsible behavior. People do not choose the society into which they are born. They do not choose the structure of that society's traditional relations between different groups of people—relations in which people of one gender, or one race or nationality, possess privileges, and lord it over the others. They encounter these relations from even before they begin to speak, so that it can seem as natural as the air they breathe—but they do not choose them. They do not choose to be in a situation where everything—and everyone—is seen as a means to profit and more profit by those who have power, and where this outlook saturates and permeates everyone else. All this is thrust upon them, and they must find their position within it. The only real choice we have is whether to resist this, to make our peace with it, or to respond to being demeaned by reaching back, demeaning and brutalizing others. To either fight against being made meaningless as "black grease," or to try to get your own piece of that domination.
These conditions, these relations are born of a system—a capitalist system based on profit and exploitation, rooted in patriarchy and the oppression of Black people.
What we need is a new system—new ways of relating, new ways of organizing society. This requires a revolution.
In a revolutionary society, no person—young or old, man or woman—will be the property of any other person. Children will not be contorted and misshapen by the brutal and restrictive notions of gender—of what it means to be a man, or a woman—which turns young dreams into dust. In a revolutionary society, people will be able to come together to forge new, collective forms for bringing up new generations. Men, women, boys and girls will be able to express their feelings and desires loud and unabashed without fear of ridicule or repercussion, knowing they'll be heard and respected. Homes won't be something you get into if you're lucky having to game a system set against you in every way just to get by. People won't silently suffer bruised beatings thinking that's all they deserve, thinking domination is a natural part of love. With no one owned or owner, brutalized or brutalizer. And in a revolutionary society, being dark and large will just be another, beautiful way to be.
None of this is possible under this system, but all of it is possible through communist revolution, through people coming together, struggling to change the world, changing themselves and the larger social relations in that process. Struggling to get rid of the dog-eat-dog economic relations at the foundation of how we live now and the horrible relations of domination that grow up on top of that… struggling to instead bring in a whole new way—a revolution.
Many people have told us that the movie shows how making good choices can help you get out of a bad situation, how you just need to find people who will help you. But let's think ahead to a "reality" sequel, ten years later. As long as the current system stands, what happens to the Ms. Rains and Ms. Weisses? And what happens to the Preciouses? Ms. Weiss is forced to kick Precious off welfare, even perhaps despite her desire to keep helping Precious. Ms. Rain's funding gets cut. Precious can't afford the life-saving medicine she needs, she can't find work or can't afford childcare. Abdul (Precious's baby boy) grows and is profiled or maybe even murdered by the police because his mom taught him to hold his head high.
The fact is, this system and its institutions are set against the people, they are not set up to assist people in need if they somehow make the right choice and simply ask for that assistance. This system and its institutions are about exploitation where that is profitable or casting them out where that is not. Even when people give their all to forge new relations—in their homes or in their classrooms—it is not sustainable within this society. Larger forces are at work. All too often this system grinds them down, chews them up and burns them out. What is needed—what is desperately needed—is a society in which the Preciouses, the Abduls and the Ms. Rains can flourish.
What is precious about Precious is her potential. And it is to this we should lift our eyes. To a society where that potential—for not just one, but for the many—can be realized. And where the resonance of precious girls everywhere is not in the horrors they face, but in the reality that could be—where the millions of little girls born into our planet are viewed and treated not as discardable, as property or as playthings but as precious—to be loved and cherished as such in their wonderful diversity.
1 Exodus 20. [back]
3 “A Declaration: For Women’s Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity,” Revolution #158, March 8, 2009. [back]
4 Interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, November 5, 2009. [back]
EXCERPTS FROM "THE PRECIOUS FILES"
(interviews with people at the Precious movie)
Griselda, 60-year-old Black woman:
"It went against what I thought it was going to be about. I thought it was going to be...just stereotypes and the typical Harlem experience that we're used to seeing. It was a little bit of that, but it was done so well that I have to say...I hope that they recognize them when it comes to the Academy Awards 'cause there was some good acting in that...It took me a long time to come to see it, 'cause I'm thinking I'm just going to see more of the same. And...it won me over just by the acting and how the subject was sensitively portrayed. Mariah Carey is very good in that, and she has a bit part. Lenny Kravitz is very good in that. All the actors are good. And I ended up walking away feeling like it's a story about starting over, not letting life knock you down. I think those are universal themes, ultimately. So I loved it. I really did. And it made me cry a lot. You cry a lot in that film, 'cause there's so much that's touching and warm and she wins you over. She wins you over. The whole film wins you over."
Leonora, 47-year-old Black woman:
"It was really emotional for me, because I lost my baby sister to domestic violence, and she never got a chance to make it out and I did. So I think about that a lot. I think about her a lot. I think about where she would be now, what she would do now."
Sky, 32-year-old "mixed Latino" man:
"As a social worker, I see it a lot. It seemed very real...There are not too many films that cover the topic... It's almost like seeing a client up on screen when I was watching it. So it was very vivid."
Lauren, 27-year-old white woman:
"It was really hard to watch. And it's really real. Really emotional. And definitely made me appreciate my life and what I have... the whole thing was just so real, and that actually happens. So it was just kind of like awakening."
Philip, 52 years old, Puerto Rican/Italian
"It was an excellent movie. I thought Mo'Nique's acting was extraordinary. And actually the movie has a powerful impact. I mean, I saw a lot of people leaving the movie theater just physically impacted. Like they had never seen anything like it."
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