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Should Christians See 'Precious'?

Dec 4 2009
What is the spiritual benefit of watching hard-to-watch films?

After reading Camerin Courtney's 3½-star review of Precious for Christianity Today Movies, I knew I wanted to see the film. Well, kind of.

Alongside other reviewers, Courtney made it clear that the film—about an obese, illiterate African American teenager who is HIV-positive and pregnant by her father for the second time—is often unbearable to watch. Filmmaker Lee Daniels and executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry were committed to capturing the rawness of their source material, poet Sapphire's 1996 novel, Push. (NPR has helpfully posted an excerpt from the book, though some of the language may be offensive). Sexual abuse and violence are pervasive themes throughout the film, which earned five Independent Spirit Award nominations last week.

Claireece "Precious" Jones's nickname is, of course, ironic. In others' as well as her own eyes, she's the antithesis of one who is esteemed, cherished, or beloved, as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it. Growing up in Harlem in 1987, Precious refers to herself as the "ugly black grease to be washed from the street." Her parents have no doubt led her to conclude thus. Her father, who we never see except when he is raping her, has abused Precious since she was a toddler; her mother, a bitter welfare recipient who spends her days chain smoking in front of the TV, inflicts on her daughter constant verbal and physical assault, telling her at one point, "I should have aborted your a**." Until attending an alternative school, where her teacher, Ms. Rain, has the effect of dignifying those around her, Precious is not so much a person with agency as an object to which terrible things are done. And perpetual poverty is the backdrop for her family's story, telling its inhabitants that it would be a lot easier if they just didn't exist.

If reading this description makes you flinch, it just means you still have a beating heart. Aware of Precious's visceral punch before seeing it, I was still tempted more than once to leave the movie theater two weeks ago. And for some reviewers, the film's commitment to shocking viewers with its subject matter diminishes its value. Esteemed critic Armond White excoriated filmmaker Daniels for exploiting popular stereotypes of blacks: "Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés … it is a sociological horror show." CT Movies critic Brett McCracken took issue with a scene depicting Precious running down the street with a stolen bucket of fried chicken: "A film like this would be more effective, I think, without such an ungainly commitment to in-your-face shock value. It's a shocking-enough subject matter without the scenes of fried chicken larceny."

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Should Christians See 'Precious'?