Sunday, March 21, 2010

Precious - a really difficult experience

Mo'Nique as the Mother in "Precious"

I could not help wondering, while watching this movie, about the story behind Gabourey Sidibe herself - the person who plays “Precious” in the film. Because, I suppose, that is the point behind this rather harrowing film.

Our society looks at a fat person, and judges them fairly mono-chromatically, against the backdrop of acceptably thin people. They are almost never judged on their own terms.

The film is about Precious’ “own terms”. About the fact that she was raped repeatedly by her father. It is about the extreme and extraordinary violence of her mother. About the shocking realities of the kind of circumstances in which she grew up. And about the titanic struggles she engaged in to take herself out of those horrific circumstances. It is about the fact that there was no-one to protect her when she most needed it.

To see her in the street, she would present as only one thing, in the kind of society which we term “normal”. You would see her as fat. Perhaps, you might also see her as “black” and fat. (Let me not disengage here. Let me not say “you”. Let me say me. I would see her thus).

And to do so would be to radically miss the person she is – or the person she has become, by being the person she is. Her size, like her colour, is at once her defining characteristic and the most irrelevant thing about her.

It was a difficult movie, not only because of its content. It was difficult because of the fact that Precious mumbles a lot, in an accent so strong that it is sometimes incomprehensible to a non-American. Her acting is fairly indifferent and she is, both willingly and unwillingly, completely overshadowed by her Oscar winning “mother” – who goes in real life by the curious name of Mo’Nique (no surname – like the author of the book on which the film is based - Sapphire. The book is called “Push” – also one word – and I would be grateful if someone would explain its relevance to me – along with Mo’Nique and Sapphire!)

The bleakness of the social setting is something extremely difficult to relate to, if that is not something you already know. It is a bit like watching Martians going about their Martian daily business. But I realized, while I was watching, that the fact that I have not experienced that kind of life doesn’t mean for a second that it is not commonplace. The grinding poverty. The collusion of silence. The unspeakable perennial horror of child abuse within the family. These are commonplace realities of our society, just as much, if not more so than in America.

What is surprising, is the generosity and tolerance of the middle-class teacher in the film. And that is a harsh criticism of the rest of us, who are not tolerant – who can’t (or don’t, or won’t) see through the fat and the illiteracy. The fact that the tolerant and sacrificial teacher also happens to be a Lesbian, was, to my mind, slightly gratuitous – besides the fact that it showed up how Precious’ mother could hold both moralistic positions on others, while deftly ignoring her own morally abandoned circumstances.

Mo’Nique’s acting in this role was quite extraordinary, both in her rage and in her silences. The horror, for me was that I could see some of her anger mirrored in some of my own performances on the home front. I could hear snatches of myself, bits and pieces in her dismissive sarcasm, in the way she sneered. It wasn’t in the overt stuff. Not in the “get yer Muthafuking fat arse down here” stuff. No, it was in the kind of harassment of accusatory questions, which a parent will pile up, one on top of the other, reducing the child to silence. And suddenly, there it is, spewing from your mouth. There you recognise the echo of words and phrases your parents used, and which were used on them, presumably by their parents. But even worse, I really battled to see anything of myself in the kind, understanding, yet highly focussed teacher that was set in counterposition to the brutal mother. That is who I would have liked to identify with. But sadly, not.

Much as one may not like it and much as one may want to act out a different parental role, the truth is, your parents rise from the dead in you. Both for her mother (and for me) that kind of thing lies waiting in your synapses. What is extraordinary beyond measure, if that it did not rise up in her.

I could identify with Mariah Carey, who played the social worker. Ever so slightly prissy, trying not to be judgemental, deeply professional. She managed to be professional, yes, but she was also completely ineffective. It was the school mates. It was the children of the incest. It was sheer character and courage that got Precious through it all. The social worker had only one thing to offer – the threat or the withdrawal of the welfare cheque. If that were to be removed from her arsenal, she had nothing to offer. And all the cover-up games, the wigs, the children bouncing on the knee to appease her and her cohorts, were paper-thin in the face of what was really there and what she and the system managed to miss completely.

So, it is a difficult movie for me. Not least, because of the extraordinary levels of violence, but more because or the recognition in myself, of my own prejudices; my own “violence”; my own lack of care for others. That is not the kind of movie one can easily recommend.

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