Long Day's Journey Into Night: Reading Push, Watching Precious

Reading review after review of both Precious and Push, same words keep emerging: "bleak," "pathology," "devastating," and "stereotypes." However, after reading Push and seeing the much buzzed-about film adaptation, I discovered something slightly unexpected: a preponderance of hope.

Hope was the last thing I was expecting when I delved into the story. Foremost on my mind was a Racialicous post from January, "Reveling in Bleakness," an essay that digs into the issues surrounding Push/black literature in mainstream culture; furthermore, any online discussion of Precious, was followed by mention of writer Percival Everett's book Erasure, a literary response to Push published in 2001. In short, all initial discussion of the book and the movie was a race and class-related cacophony, and I hadn't even opened a page.

I settled in for what I thought would be an extremely painful and devastating read...or, worse, something so disgusting and exploitative that I would reject it outright as poverty pimping. Instead, I fell headlong into the alternately horrific and hilarious world of Precious Jones, a world that felt simultaneously familiar and alien. Precious' rapid fire thoughts, and casual allegiance to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam are fascinating, as is her openness to the world, even as she is limited by her life's circumstances. I understand the impulse to cringe at her story, painted as it is with dysfunction and pain (the graphic depictions of sexual and physical violence aren't for the faint of heart). But again, I read the novel dry-eyed. Perhaps I didn't have any tears left to shed for Precious. I've been holding in the secrets of others for years - and although the circumstances described in Push are extreme, they're not unimaginable. I smiled when I closed the book.

The next day, I hopped on the train to NYC to catch a screening of the film adaptation. Again, I prepared for a devastation that did not materialize. I did break down - especially during Mary's final monologue - but I spent a lot more of the movie laughing along with the title character (sometimes, life is so fucked up it moves into the absurd, which is what happens in Precious.; but the abject misery of the dank apartment Precious shares with her sadistic mother is mitigated by many other scenes, especially those of Precious' fellow students reclaiming their lives and their narratives).

Long Day's Journey Into Night: Reading Push, Watching Precious

My favorite character, outside of Precious, is Joanne. Actress Xosha Roquemore clearly evokes the spirit of Remy Ma and drops her into the 1980s. I died laughing at her empathy and warmth, undercut with flourishes of hard posturing.

The film does many things well, starting with the Susan L. Taylor cameo as the fairy godmother who opens the film's first fantasy sequence. Daniels is able to capture the horror of what happens to Precious without glamorizing the violence, making use of quick cut scenes and strategically placed fantasy sequences to pull both Precious and the viewer away from the acts committed upon her. In addition, Daniels stays fairly true to the book, pulling many lines directly from the pages. In addition, Daniels makes wonderful use of visuals - the laughter-filled, happy scenes with Precious in the hospital, surrounded by friends and a doting vegan nurse (Lenny Kravitz) provide a stark contrast with her return to the brown void with her mother.

Though I would count the film as a success, there is a major stumble that took place when moving the book from page to screen.

Over at Feministing, Rose writes:

A few days remain until Precious debuts across the country on Nov. 6th. The story, originally told by Sapphire through the novel Push, is an ode to negotiating inclusion and exclusion in the media. It's about much more than the New York Times' account: a "Harlem girl raped and impregnated by her abusive father." (That's practically all the ink dedicated to Precious the character despite an accompanying a column that extends for 5 pages.) It's about inclusion and what it says about who is valuable in our society. That's best captured in Push, when Precious explores this:

I am comp'tant. I was comp'tant enough for her [Precious' mother] husband to fuck. She ain' come in here and say, Carl Kenwood Jones—thas wrong! Git off Precious like that! Can't you see Precious is a beautiful chile like white chile in magazines or on toilet paper wrappers. Precious is a blue-eye skinny chile whose hair is long braids, long long braids. Git off Precious fool! It time for Precious to go to the gym like Janet Jackson. It time for Precious hair to braided.(64)

But what I love about the book is that Precious is not a defenseless subject. She is a survivor who resists against her exclusion by striving for her own inclusion. She does this by learning how to read. She then uses her literacy to read about the lives of Black women through writers such as Alice Walker, Ann Petry, Ann McGovern and others. The story ends with her literally penning her own story fully epitomizing the agency she had all along despite sexual trauma and despair.

This is precisely my take. From the beginning of the novel, Precious' voice explodes on the page, providing us with a heroine who may not be the most educated or literate, but has a vibrant inner life. This doesn't exactly translate on screen - Sidibe voices some of Precious' thoughts, but slowly, and nowhere near as many random, flitting ideas are explored in the movie. This omission changes our perception of Precious - in the book, she is bright, quick-witted, and runs a constant narration about the things she has encountered in her world. And once she discovers the alternative school, the reader is excited as Precious is finally given a chance to express what she is thinking - she has a space in which to speak where she is valued, as well as a new method (writing) that unlocked more possibilities for reflection, introspection, and discussions.

In the film, these elements are flattened a bit. I'm aware that books cannot be translated exactly to the screen, but condensing Precious' thoughts removes a lot of her own agency. For example, after Precious acts out in math class and gets into a verbal confrontation with her teacher, Mr. Wicher, she feels some remorse and ruminates on a goal that's slightly out of reach:

I didn't want to hurt him or embarrass him like that you know. But I couldn't let him, anybody, know, page 122 look like page 152, 22, 3, 6, 5 - all the pages look alike to me. 'N I really do want to learn. Everyday I tell myself something gonna happen, some shit like on TV. I'm gonna break through or somebody gonna break through to me - I'm gonna learn, catch up, be normal, change my seat to the front of the class. But again, it has not been that day.

This was on page five. Sapphire establishes her acharacter as wanting something more, knowing there is something more, but not quite understanding how she can reach her goal. The movie makes the classroom scenes closer to a "Freedom Writers" scenario, with Paula Patton veering way too close to the typical "nice white lady" trope.

Ah, Paula Patton.

While I think Patton is gorgeous and talented, I don't think she did the character of Blu Rain justice.

Part of this is not her fault - the character of Blue Rain in the book is considerably darker, with dreadlocks. Now, this may not seem so important on its face. After all, casting makes character changes all the time, right? This shouldn't be this big of a deal.

And it wouldn't, if the character of Precious wasn't so thoroughly indoctrinated with self hatred, displaying her color consciousness throughout the entire book. In Push, after she has her first child, Precious wastes no time in calling an EMT a "spic", quickly revising her opinion of him to use the more respectful term "Spanish" and comment on his "coffee-cream color, good hair" after he comes to her aid. Her nurse in the hospital is described as "butter color" - Precious worships light skinned people in general, whites most of all, believing that if she were white, her life would be better. She says:

My fahver don't see me really. If he did, he would know I was like a white girl, a real person, inside.

Marinate on that for a second. She would be real if she were white.

He would not climb on me from forever and stick his dick in me 'n get me inside on fire, bleed, I bleed then he slap me. Can't he see I am a girl for flowers and thin straw legs and a place in the picture. I been out the picture so long I am used to it. But that don't mean it don't hurt.

In Precious' mind, whiteness is equivalent to being loved, safe, and wanted. The movie briefly touches on this, showing Precious looking in the mirror and seeing a young white girl peering back at her, but this moment is robbed from its potency unless you are exposed to the constant self-hatred throbbing in her brain.

On a broader scale, as many others have noted, the positioning of Paula Patton and Mariah Carey as Precious' light skinned saviors reinforces existing societal ideas - the evil or helpless dark skinned people being uplifted (or punished) by the benevolent light skinned people. The casting serves to help reinforce existing prejudices that we see played out onscreen time and time again.

Even outside of that, Patton's portrayal of Rain did not make me believe that she was someone Precious could trust. That Mad TV sketch I linked to above? That was the scene between Precious and Blu Rain after Precious confesses she is HIV positive. Down to the heavy handed command, "write."

The other moment in the film that radically departs from the book is Mary's final monologue. In the social worker's office, Precious' mother gives voice to what caused her to look the other way when she knew her child was being sexually abused, and gives insight into why she chose to perpetuate this dysfunction. In the book, this speech isn't much of a speech - it's a confession, with Precious cursing her mother out in her head the whole time. And while the sight of the film's monstrous antagonist breaking down and offering to forgo the sacred welfare for a chance to be reunited with her daughter adds to the movie immeasurably, I don't think Mary should have automatically been humanized on principle. If you want the evil mom to be given full representation and humanity, go read the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But here, I think Sapphire deliberately chose not to humanize Mary's character. Why? I believe the answer lies on page 31.

I talk loud but I still don't exist.

In life, the character of Precious Jones is marginalized and invisible, ignored unless someone wishes to do her harm or use her in some way. Her only refuge is her mind, where she keeps herself company. And thus, Sapphire - who revealed a bit of this sentiment in her recent interview with Katie Couric - makes the entire novel about her. It's all about her thoughts, her eyes, her reactions, her perceptions. (The other girls publish their stories in a supplement after Precious' story ends.) And so, shifting the focus to anyone else would ultimately start to overshadow the story of Precious, even for a moment.

There is so much more I could write - perceptions about the film, familial violence, sexual abuse, black stereotyping, the single story conundrum, other critics take's, race and Oscar bait, what I thought about Erasure - but those will have to wait for another day.

Precious [Official Site]

Related: Reveling In Bleakness [Racialicious]
Erasure
The Not-Rape Epidemic [Racialicious]
Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire [IMDB]
On Representation: Push Versus Precious [Feministing]
Reflections On Lola [The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao] (Part 1 of 2) [Racialicious]
Katie Couric Interviews Sapphire [What About Our Daughters]

Earlier: What We Talk About When We Talk About Precious