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Charm School of Hard Knocks

MOVIE REVIEW
Precious: Based on the Novel 'PUSH' by Sapphire (2009)

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Lionsgate

Is “Precious” a race picture or a women’s picture? Regardless of what critics have to say, those associated with it seem to cling to the former. Back at Sundance Film Festival, the film scored a distribution deal with Lionsgate, and along with it eyebrow-raising endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Certainly, Ms. Winfrey’s seal of approval could make the case for the film either as a race picture or a women’s picture because of the media tycoon’s mass appeal. But Mr. Perry’s support points to a middle-class black target audience.

The source material — the novel “Push” by Sapphire — is powerful stuff, the story of an illiterate high school student who’s twice impregnated by her father. While some were troubled by the grotesque archetypes of abuse victim and monstrous parents, these aren’t exactly racial stereotypes as many literary (and film) critics have insisted. Indeed, one could recast “Precious” with all white performers and set it in the American South and the film would pack the same punch. It’s troublesome that many are convinced that the horrors the story’s protagonist faces are somehow typical of or exclusive to blacks. The fact that her English teacher is a lesbian would suggest “Precious” is a women’s picture given its general distaste for men.

Lee Daniels’s film adaptation is worthwhile mainly for Sapphire’s harrowing story and the uniformly fearless performances: from Gabourey Sidibe’s star-making turn in the lead, to Mo’Nique’s much-touted Oscar-bait take on the abusive mother, to even Mariah Carey’s mesmerizingly no-nonsense social worker. “Precious” has its share of detractors, because Mr. Daniels is a truly lousy filmmaker — you’ll be certain of this after one look at the ridiculous fantasy sequences. It’s amazing how the film turns out to be infinitely moving in spite of Mr. Daniels’s stylistic self-destruct. But to hate on “Precious” because of the racial stereotypes it allegedly portrays would be just as misguided as Mr. Daniels’s direction.

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL 'PUSH' BY SAPPHIRE

Opened on Nov. 6 in New York and Los Angeles and on Jan. 29, 2010 in Britain.

Directed by Lee Daniels; written by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by Joe Klotz; music by Mario Grigorov; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Mr. Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Mo’Nique (Mary), Paula Patton (Ms. Rain), Maria Carey (Ms. Weiss), Sherri Shepherd (Cornrows), Lenny Kravitz (Nurse John), Kimberly Russell (Katherine) and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious).

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