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On Movies: 'Precious' is a memorable movie about a memorable character

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 19, 2009 - Sixteen-year-old Claireece "Precious" Jones hides her fear behind lowered eyes, locks up her anger inside tightened lips and filters her pain through layers of weight. When she's alone, she sometimes escapes into fantasies of being a slim, light-skinned beauty queen, or the beloved hostess of a TV show. No matter what she does, she cannot long escape the horror of her urban world, a world that is laid bare in "Precious."

Poor and worse than fatherless -- she has one child from incestual rape and is pregnant with a second -- Precious is the inheritor of generations of poverty and abuse. Her most immediate oppressor is her own mother, who cruelly belittles her and attacks her physically for the most trivial of perceived slights and mistakes. She sees Precious mainly as a link to welfare benefits.

This compelling if emotionally brutal new movie is, as its subtitle states, "Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," and it courageously captures the horror of the book. To those who have suggested that making the character of the mother so malignant amounts to blaming the victim, Sapphire, a poet and former Harlem schoolteacher, has replied, "The more oppressed a person is, the more oppressive they will be." The mother is far from the only villain in the movie, but, in part because of a powerful performance by actress-comedienne Mo'Nique, she is the dominant one. But she is ultimately driven to rage by abuse, weakness and self-pity.

"Precious" is an emotionally shattering, heartbreaking movie about growing up absurd in the ghetto. At times, its story may seem melodramatic in its depiction of its horrors, but it is so well acted by so many in the cast, especially young Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe in the title role, and is so undeniably based on reality that it sweeps the viewer along past the occasional problematic spot.

The story of Precious is a cruel but not a hopeless one. In an alternative high school that Precious stumbles into, a kind and astute Harlem schoolteacher (Paula Patton) very slowly opens Precious up to the possibility of escaping the ever-repeating cycle of poverty, racism and abuse. As the classes progress, livened up by the wise-cracking of a roomful of smart if undereducated adolescent girls, the teacher gives Precious the gift of being able to read and write -- until then, the girl is virtually illiterate, despite getting A's in English. The girl also benefits from some unflinching honesty from a social worker, played quietly and effectively by Mariah Carey.

"Precious" is skillfully directed by Lee Daniels ("Shadowboxer"), who at times breaks the general mood of anger and bitterness with daring scenes of surprising humor and exuberance. Daniels coaxes a brave and unflinching performance out of Gabourey Sidibe. In a sense, we find ourselves rooting for the actress as much as we do for the character, and Sibide does not disappoint us. She gives a memorable performance, and in doing so creates a memorable character.

Opens Nov. 20

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.