February 4, 2010

A New Twist on an Old Dream

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Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, Precious presents a shockingly bleak picture of Harlem in 1987 through the eyes of sixteen-year old Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe). Twice impregnated by her own father, Precious is also overweight, illiterate, and the victim of much physical and verbal abuse from her unemployed and dysfunctional mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). “Precious” is disturbing, unsettling, and hopeless. As Scott Mendelson wrote in The Huffington Post, the movie is a “glimpse into a world we’d rather pretend does not exist in America.” However, this world does exist. Precious — by questioning the American dream — reminds us of this fact.

The movie follows Precious as she switches, after her principal discovers her second pregnancy, to an alternative school. Despite her dysfunctional home life, Precious remains determined to earn her GED, helped along the way by her new teacher, Miss Rain (Paula Patton). Eventually, Precious decides to leave her abusive mother to better pursue her goals and care for her children. But just when Precious’ life finally seems to be taking a turn for the better, her mother enters the scene with disturbing news: Precious’ father has just died from AIDS. Precious discovers that she is HIV positive but, nonetheless, remains determined to succeed. In one of the movie’s most poignant scenes (and just one of the numerous examples of the film’s excellent acting), Mary pleads with a social worker (Mariah Carey) to be reunited with her daughter and two grandchildren. Ultimately, Precious leaves her abusive mother for good, determined to raise her two children and earn her GED alone.

Precious is a tough movie to watch. There is nothing redeeming about the film’s grim representation of inner-city life, its depiction of inescapable poverty or the predetermined fates of its main characters. Even the movie’s final scene—a cliffhanger of sorts where Precious finally leaves her abusive mother —leaves the audience with an unsettled feeling. We want Precious to succeed but, at the same time, know the odds for an illiterate, overweight, impoverished, HIV-positive teenage mother of two are, to put it lightly, not exactly ideal.

Released one year after America’s first African American president first took office, Precious reminds us that our country still has a problem with racial self-image and race relations. Precious, an African American, often wishes for a “light-skinned boy” and even imagines herself as a pretty blonde. Meanwhile, Mary remains ever distrustful of Precious’s white principal and the white social workers who visit the house.

Moreover, the movie exposes the flaws in our educational system. Despite reports that the “achievement gap” is closing, there are students being marginalized by the system. Like Precious, they are passed along from grade to grade without ever learning the skills necessary for success in the workforce. Without these skills, these students become more likely to depend on welfare checks like the unemployed Mary, who reveals the flaws in this system. Unwilling to even look for work, she presents an elaborate illusion to the social workers of her desperate job hunt and succeeds in securing another batch of welfare checks. This inescapable and cyclical poverty threatens to ensnare Precious as well: her mother continually tells Precious she is too stupid for anything but welfare checks and that she should never aspire to anything greater.

It is this entrapped mindset — perpetuated by our race relations, educational system, and welfare system — that calls into question the mythic American dream. Is this dream possible — as the courageous and determined Precious believes — or is it merely a clever fiction? The film certainly dwells on this relationship between dreams and reality. Throughout the movie, Precious imagines she is a glamorous celebrity. At her most vulnerable and traumatic moments, she uses this self-created fiction as an escape from the real world.

Ultimately, the movie leaves the audience with the gloomy realization that perhaps the American dream is an illusion. Precious, after all, seems destined to fail despite her courageous attitude. The movie seems to paradoxically suggest that while the American dream is an illusion, we must either irrationally believe in it (like Precious) or simply reject the idea of progress altogether (like Precious’s mother). However, a closer examination of the movie’s casting debunks this interpretation. In Gabourey Sidibe, the actress who rose from obscurity to play the lead role, the movie makes its most powerful claim that the American dream — though it needs questioning — is alive and well.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg