fri 25/09/2020

Precious | reviews, news & interviews



Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe shines in this award-winning modern urban fairytale

What an odd and provocative coincidence that black women - hardly a demographic over-represented in mainstream cinema - should be at the centre of two high-profile American films opening this week. One is The Princess and the Frog, also reviewed today on theartsdesk. The other is the multi-award-winning Precious. In the former, the princess is a brunette edition of Disney's pretty Barbie prototype. Near the beginning of Precious, by contrast, when you first spy this sullen, seriously obese figure waddling into view, you might be forgiven for asking, "Do I really want to spend 110 minutes in this character's company?" The answer is not a foregone conclusion.

Cleverly the director, Lee Daniels, doesn't kick off with this depressing image but with a brief scene introducing Precious's fantasy alter ego, a gorgeous, glamorous Big Beautiful Woman surrounded by flashbulbs, fans and male admirers. In reality, her life is one of triple-dyed miserablism. Poor, illiterate, raped repeatedly by her father who has left her with two children by him, one of them a Down's baby, her prospects don't exactly look bright in late 1980s Harlem. The film tells the miraculous story of how, incrementally, Precious carves out a brighter future for herself.

Warning: an inspirational teacher is involved. At multiple points Precious skirts seriously close to windy cliché, but Daniels is very far from being an earnest, dull film-maker. As a producer, he was behind The Woodsman (Kevin Bacon as a paedophile) and Monster's Ball (racism and the death penalty in the Deep South), and so nobody could accuse him of shying away from the big issues. But he tackles them with a populist touch. And, lest we forget, Daniels's sole previous outing as director was the stupendously kitsch, lurid and eccentric gangster flick, Shadowboxer, about the incestuous relationship between a mother-and-son team of hired killers, played by Cuba Gooding Jr and Helen Mirren (it went straight to DVD in Britain).

PreciousandMaryLike that film, Precious is powered by a raging energy, a shameless sense of melodrama and left-field casting choices. Mariah Carey, sporting a much-publicised moustache, is the drab social worker who gives Precious her first break; Lenny Kravitz a male nurse who takes an interest in her. Most media attention has fastened on Mo'nique, who plays her hateful mother. Equally overweight and, judging by her flakey behaviour, crack-addicted (though she's not seen actually using it), she colluded in her daughter's sexual abuse and has now has made it her life's mission to stamp on Precious's every effort to reshape her destiny. Endowed with a big-moment, give-me-an-Oscar monologue at the climax, it's the film's showcase role, though for my money the unknown actress Gabourey Sidibe, present in virtually every scene, gives the more impressive performance, one that finds a way of quietly conveying the keen intelligence and dry humour behind Precious's lumpen facade (Sidibe and Mo'nique are pictured above).

Any film with an African-American subject is fated to come under fierce scrutiny in the States and both The Princess and the Frog and Precious - which has been variously celebrated and reviled there by the black community - are no exception. British audiences, however, may be able to appreciate both these films from a more detached perspective, as thoroughly engaging narratives. Certainly, in its own way, Precious is just as much of a modern fairytale.

Precious opens in the UK on Friday. Official website.

Stop press: the Mercury prize-winner Speech Debelle will appear at a charity screening of the film at the Rio Cinema, Dalston, on 29 January at 11.30pm. Book tickets here.

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