Problems With 'Precious'

Is Lee Daniels's heartbreaking new movie about a poor, obese, HIV-positive black woman inspired or exploitative?

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Lee Daniels's new film may be called 'Precious,' but the story the director brings to life is anything but. The movie's heroine is poor, black, HIV-positive, abused by her mother, twice pregnant by her father, and morbidly obese. At the Cannes Film Festival, 'Precious' was met with critical acclaim, and actress Gabourey Sidibe's performance as the ill-fated Precious received particular praise. Yet movie critics are broadly uneasy about the film, with many suggesting it crosses the line between inspired film making and exploitation. Others are unsettled by messages the film conveys about black poverty and obesity. Lee Daniels confessed his acute awareness of the problem to The New York Times:

As African-Americans, we are in an interesting place,” Daniels told The Times. “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.” He paused. “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.

Here's where Daniels's critics think 'Precious' went wrong:

  • Guilt Without Consciousness  Ed Gonzales of Slant, a site about film criticism, says the film is less a "recognizably human tragedy" than a "condescending drama queen's notion of one." He says 'Precious' is "an impeccably acted piece of trash—an exploitation film that shamelessly strokes its audience's sense of righteous indignation. Your tongue hasn't clucked this hard since Crash," the tagline for the film may as well read."
  • Poverty Porn  Slate Magazine's Dana Stevens says the unrelenting string of tragedies in the young girl's life do a real disservice to the Sidibe's character, and the real people whose worlds are underrepresented in Hollywood.
Daniels and his screenwriter, Geoffrey Fletcher, are so eager to wring uplift from Precious' story that they're willing to manipulate us to get it. Daniels and Fletcher no doubt intended for their film to lend a voice to the kind of protagonist too often excluded from American movie screens: a poor, black, overweight single mother from the inner city. But in offering up their heroine's misery for the audience's delectation, they've created something uncomfortably close to poverty porn.
  • Not Subversive Enough  Newsweek's Raina Kelley describes a film as a 'rags to riches' story without the riches. She says the film is a disturbing endorsement of the status-quo.
In their admiration of Precious's strength and resilience, these people also implicitly accept the status quo. Precious's parents are certainly villains, but they are also red herrings. Her situation feels so extreme that we lose sight of the bigger picture. It becomes too hard to summon up any more outrage at the social worker who never figures out that something awful is happening in Precious's home, or at the well-meaning civil servant who can't help Precious beyond finding her a job for $2.12 an hour, or at the teacher who gave Precious an A-minus in English when she can't read. I'm tired of movies presenting black people as grateful to find a helping hand to rise above their abusers.
  • Let's Not Glorify Obesity  At The Root, an online magazine aimed at black Americans, Alicia Villarosa says obesity is a "national epidemic" that can lead to a "host of dangerous health issues," and should not be so celebrated. "So to Sidibe, I say: Congratulations on Precious. And my hope is that you get a handle on your health so that you can take full advantage of this tremendous opportunity—and be around to enjoy your success for many, healthy years to come."
  • A Powerful Film  Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly is more impressed. "Precious captures how a lost girl rouses herself from the dead, and Daniels shows unflinching courage as a filmmaker by going this deep into the pathologies that may still linger in the closets of some impoverished inner-city lives." 
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.