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."
All this may lead some Christians to decide against viewing Precious. I empathize with that decision, wholly affirming each believer's freedom to abstain from media that offend their conscience or touch on particular sensitivities. All of us can probably think of times we watched a movie praised by critics and friends, only to resent doing so later because of how it affected us. For many believers, this will be such a movie.
Based on my own experience seeing Precious, though, I want to suggest at least one spiritual benefit of watching hard-to-watch films: They allow viewers to understand a bit of the characters' traumas without having to live through the traumas. Without having to undergo the horror of sexual abuse, we see, for example, how a sex-abuse survivor like Precious might view herself and her future. Or, by watching Waltz with Bashir—another harrowing movie of the past year—we understand how some survivors of war are tortured by their own wartime actions decades after the fighting has stopped. In seeing the depths of human sinfulness and misery without having to suffer them directly, viewers who choose to see such films are given a bit of grace.
Of course, if we leave the theater without connecting the characters' experience with those of flesh-and-blood people, we neglect a central benefit of hard-to-watch films. Several writers have noted how many Claireece Precious Joneses there are in the U.S., and how they so need support from ministries that reach out to teen mothers or sex-abuse survivors. One Christian ministry, Teen Mother Choices International, has responded to Precious by launching "the Plan" to reach the estimated 485,000 teen girls who become mothers in a year's time. Likely Precious will serve to remind others why they do the work they do, offering a boost of inspiration when resources and hope are low.
Christians who forgo seeing Precious aren't de facto callous for doing so. But for those who watch it carefully and prayerfully, the film will likely translate into reaching the precious among them with tangible acts of Christlikeness.
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