Sapphire's controversial 1996 novel Push records vicious, shattering brutality and the possibility of human redemption. It does so in the vividly shifting voice of a 16-year-old girl who moves beyond overwhelming physical, sexual and social abuse by learning to write her own story. Push is simple in that way. Literacy is everything for Precious Jones, the novel's central character. Learning to tell her own story means having some control over the plot of her life. And, yet, as its readers know, Push is also immensely complex in its exploration of the power of self-narration. The novel is a deep meditation on the experiences of an underclass, African American female pinned down by American racial politics and equally pinioned inside a set of interlocking institutions—juvenile justice, education and the welfare office of the 1980s. A child becoming a woman, Precious has also been subject to the torturing and dehumanizing actions of a "mother" and a "father" who see her as chattel to be used to gratify their own desires and needs.
Resolutely focused on the narrative of Precious herself, Push manages to tell multiple stories while providing varied depictions of African American life in the 1980s. A middle-class African American lesbian who teaches at an alternative school claims the reader's attention, as does a compassionate light-skinned African American nurse whom Precious calls "Miss Butter," recognizing that there's something about being black that isn't only defined by color. It is this complicating perspective that Push has on Precious' story that renders charges of its trafficking in negative representations and stereotypes of African American life moot.
Just as Precious is "pushed" by her life, by both her enemies and allies, and by her own dawning sense of her value, the novel pushes its reader out into deep water where no easy resolution is possible, no shoreline comes into clear view. In this context, Precious articulates the double bind of her life and her future in her still developing language: "I think how alive I am, every part of me that is cells, proteens, nutrons, hairs, pussy, eyeballs, nervus system, brain. I got poems, a son, friends. I want to live so bad. Mama remind me that I might not. I got this virus in my body like cloud over sun. Don't know when, don't know how, maybe it hold back a long long time, but one day it's gonna rain."
In bringing Push to the screen, director Lee Daniels' Precious has doubled down on the history of controversy surrounding the representation of American black experience. Critics and viewers either love or hate the film, which has been dubbed "poverty porn," a "sociological horror," and charged with replicating some of the most deeply ingrained and ugly white stereotypes of blackness (there is a scene involving Precious and a bucket of fried chicken that is, indeed, hard to watch). But Precious is a movie and not a social policy or a prescriptive cure-all for the racial and historical politics that continue to bedevil American life. Yes, the film makes mistakes. It stumbles. In the main, however, it is a beautiful, moving narrative that is superlatively acted and strongly filmed.
Not enough can be said about the strength, intensity and precision of the acting. There is no single instance of miscasting or of mistaken characterization in the film. Every cast member from Lenny Kravitz (Nurse John) to Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) delivers deeply engaged and sometimes ferocious performances. Playing Mary Jones, Precious' mother, Mo'Nique's final screen appearance in which she struggles in front of a social worker to tell her own story of loss while exculpating herself of any complicity in the abuse of Precious is nothing short of stunning.
The film itself is an interesting mix of realism and cinematic surrealism. Precious opens with a scene in which a red scarf dangles from a streetlamp underneath a Harlem subway bridge. The intensity of the red gives the grey of Precious' world a more vivid quality: The contrast is both pleasing and unsettling. The film uses color in this thematically contrastive way throughout, particularly in distinguishing between the dark of Precious' apartment, where much of the physical and sexual violence of the film takes place, and a set of brilliantly lit and colored fantasy sequences—the catwalks, photo shoots and gospel choirs that Precious imagines as escape routes.
It is worth noting that the controversy over the representational politics of Precious is connected to the material world: No film made by a black director has ever been nominated for an Oscar for best picture, only one African American has ever been nominated as best director, and in the category of writing for film, just five out of 800 nominees have been African American. Precious is pushing into some important aesthetic and social territory.
Precious continues at the Wilma Theatre.