Long Day’s Journey into Night: Reading Push, Watching Precious

by Latoya Peterson, originally published at Jezebel


Before reading Push, I braced myself and prepared for depression. Before heading to see Precious, I packed three travel sized packs of kleenex. But the unrelenting despair I was warned about never quite materialized. Instead, I saw hope.

Crazy right?

Hope was the last thing I was expecting when I checked out this story. After all, I had published SLB’s essay/post “Reveling in Bleakness,” and every time I announced something about Precious, one of my readers would plug Percival Everett’s Erasure. Reading any of my online feeds was a race and class related cacophony, and I hadn’t even touched a page.

Last Thursday, I settled in for what I thought would be an extremely painful and devastating read…or, worse, something so disgusting and exploitative that I would reject it outright as poverty pimping. But neither of these things happened.

Instead, I fell headlong into the alternately horrific and hilarious world of Precious Jones, one that was both familiar to me and strange at the same time. I enjoyed Precious’ rapid fire thoughts, found her casual allegiance to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam interesting, and watched her openness to the world, even as she was limited by circumstances. I understand the impulse that many would have to cringe at much of the piece – the world painted is tangled with dysfunction and pain, and graphic depictions of sexual and physical violence aren’t for the feint of heart. But again, I read the novel dry-eyed. Perhaps I didn’t have any tears left to shed for Precious. I’ve been holding in the secrets of others for years – the circumstances described in Push are extreme, but not unimaginable. I loved watching Precious progress, watching her world expand, watching her cope in the same ways I’ve seen so many other girls do. As I have done. Acknowledge what’s fucked up, push onward. And, in a wonderful touch, Sapphire allows the other girls to have their say at the end of the book, revealing the same vibrant inner lives as Precious possesses. I smiled when I closed the book.

The next day, I hopped on the train to NYC to watch the film adaptation. Again, I prepared for devastation that did not materialize. I did cry – especially at Mary’s final monologue, which I will get to later – but spent a lot more of the movie laughing along with Precious. Sometimes, life is so fucked up it rolls into the absurd, which is what happens in Precious. The abject misery of the dank apartment she shares with her sadistic mother is mitigated when by many other scenes of teenagers reclaiming their lives and their narratives.

My favorite character, outside of Precious, had to be Joanne. Actress Xosha Roquemore clearly evoked the spirit of Remy Ma and dropped her into the 1980s. Every time she was on screen, I died laughing at her empathy and warmth, undercut with flourishes of hard posturing.

The film does many things well, starting with the Susan L. Taylor (!) cameo as the fairy godmother who opens the film’s first fantasy sequence. Daniels is able to capture the horror of what happens to Precious without glamorizing the violence, making use of quick cut scenes and strategically placed fantasy sequences to pull both Precious and the viewer away from the act. In addition, Daniels stays fairly true to the book, pulling many lines directly from the pages. And many parts of the book remain as the author intended – Blue Rain remains a lesbian in the film, and her partner is shown a few different times. In addition, Daniels makes wonderful use of visuals – the laughter-filled, happy scenes with Precious in the hospital, surrounded by friends and a doting veg*n nurse (played by Lenny Kravitz) provide a stark contrast with her return to the brown void with her mother.

However, while I would count the film as a success, there is a major stumble that happened taking the book from page to screen.

Over at Feministing, Rose writes:

A few days remain until Precious debuts across the country on Nov. 6th. The story, originally told by Sapphire through the novel Push, is an ode to negotiating inclusion and exclusion in the media. It’s about much more than the New York Times’ account: a “Harlem girl raped and impregnated by her abusive father.” (That’s practically all the ink dedicated to Precious the character despite an accompanying a column that extends for 5 pages.) It’s about inclusion and what it says about who is valuable in our society. That’s best captured in Push, when Precious explores this:

    I am comp’tant. I was comp’tant enough for her [Precious' mother] husband to fuck. She ain’ come in here and say, Carl Kenwood Jones–thas wrong! Git off Precious like that! Can’t you see Precious is a beautiful chile like white chile in magazines or on toilet paper wrappers. Precious is a blue-eye skinny chile whose hair is long braids, long long braids. Git off Precious fool! It time for Precious to go to the gym like Janet Jackson. It time for Precious hair to braided.(64)

But what I love about the book is that Precious is not a defenseless subject. She is a survivor who resists against her exclusion by striving for her own inclusion. She does this by learning how to read. She then uses her literacy to read about the lives of Black women through writers such as Alice Walker, Ann Petry, Ann McGovern and others. The story ends with her literally penning her own story fully epitomizing the agency she had all along despite sexual trauma and despair.

Which was precisely my take. From the beginning of the novel, Precious’ voice explodes on the page, providing us with a heroine who may not be the most educated or literate, but has a vibrant inner life. This doesn’t exactly translate on screen – Sidibe voices some of Precious’ thoughts, but slowly, and no where near as many random, flitting ideas are explored over the course of the movie. This omission changes our perception of Precious – in the book, she bright, quick-witted, and runs a constant narration about the things she has encountered in her world. Once she discovers the alternative school, the reader is excited as Precious is finally given a chance to express what she is thinking – she has a space in which to speak where she is valued, as well as a new method (writing) that unlocked more possibilities for reflection, introspection, and discussions.

In the film, this part is flattened a bit. I am aware that books cannot be translated exactly to the screen, but condensing Precious’ thoughts removes a lot of her own agency. After Precious acts out in math class, getting into a verbal confrontation with her teacher, Mr. Wicher, she feels some remorse and ruminates on a goal that’s slightly out of reach:

I didn’t want to hurt him or embarrass him like that you know. But I couldn’t let him, anybody, know, page 122 look like page 152, 22, 3, 6, 5 – all the pages look alike to me. ‘N I really do want to learn. Everyday I tell myself something gonna happen, some shit like on TV. I’m gonna break through or somebody gonna break through to me – I’m gonna learn, catch up, be normal, change my seat to the front of the class. But again, it has not been that day.

This was on page five. Her character is established as wanting something more, knowing there is something more, but not quite understanding how she can reach her goal. The movie makes the classroom scenes closer to a “Freedom Writers” scenario, with Paula Patton veering way too close to the typical “nice white lady” trope.

Ah, Paula Patton.

While I think Patton is gorgeous and talented, I don’t believe she did the character of Blue Rain justice.

Part of this is not her fault – the character of Blue Rain in the book is considerably darker, with dreadlocks. Now, this may not seem so important on its face. After all, casting makes character changes all the time, right? This shouldn’t be this big of a deal.

And it wouldn’t, if the character of Precious wasn’t so thoroughly indoctrinated with self hatred and displaying her color consciousness throughout the entire book. When she has her first child, she wasted no time in calling the EMT a spic before he helped her, quickly revising her opinion of him to use the more respectful term “Spanish” and comment on his “coffee-cream color, good hair.” Her nurse in the hospital is described as “butter color,” looks at her lightness, and opines “It’s something about being a nigger ain’t color.” Henceforth, that nurse is called Miss Butter. She worships light skinned people in general, and whites most of all, believing that if she were white, her life would be better. She says:

My fahver don’t see me really. If he did, he would know I was like a white girl, a real person, inside.

Marinate on that for a second. She would be real if she were white.

He would not climb on me from forever and stick his dick in me ‘n get me inside on fire, bleed, I bleed then he slap me. Can’t he see I am a girl for flowers and thin straw legs and a place in the picture. I been out the picture so long I am used to it. But that don’t mean it don’t hurt.

In Precious’ mind, whiteness is equivalent to being loved, safe, and wanted. The movie briefly shows this by having Precious look in the mirror and see a young white girl, but this moment is robbed from its potency unless you are exposed to the constant self-hatred throbbing in her brain.

Later in the book, Blue Rain models self love and acceptance for Precious, and for the first time, she is able to see that dark skin and natural hair can be beautiful.

This dynamic does not exist with Paula Patton in the role. She would be yet another light skinned person with “good hair” representing progress – something Precious would see as unattainable for herself.

On a broader scale, as many people picked up watching the trailer, the positioning of Paula Patton and Mariah Carey as Precious’ light skinned saviors reinforced existing societal ideas – the evil or helpless dark skinned people being uplifted (or punished) by the benevolent light skinned people. The casting serves to help reinforce existing prejudices that we see played out onscreen time and time again.

But even outside of that, Patton’s portrayal of Rain did not make me believe that she was someone Precious could trust. That Mad TV sketch I linked to above? That was the scene between Precious and Blue Rain after Precious confesses she is HIV positive. Down to the heavy handed command “write.”

The other moment in the film that radically departed from the book was Mo’Nique’s shining moment. In the social worker’s office, Precious’ mother Mary gives voice to what caused her to look the other way when she knew her child was being sexually abused, and gives insight into why she chose to perpetuate this dysfunction. In the book, this speech isn’t much of a speech – it’s a confession, with Precious cursing her mother out in her head the whole time. But on screen,the sight of the film’s monstrous antagonist breaking down and offering to forgo the sacred welfare chance to be reunited with her daughter is both disgusting and moving. You are revolted at Mary’s confession and yet, simultaneously empathizing a little, a master stroke.

But this doesn’t exist in the book. And while I think it adds to the movie immeasurably, I don’t think Mary should have automatically been humanized on principle. If you want the evil mom to be given full representation and humanity, go read the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But here, I think Sapphire deliberately chose not to humanize Mary’s character. Why? I believe the answer lies on page 31.

I talk loud but I still don’t exist.

In life, the character of Precious Jones is marginalized and invisible, ignored unless someone wishes to do her harm or use her in some way. Her only refuge is her mind, where she essentially keeps herself company. And thus, Sapphire – who reveals a bit of this sentiment in her interview with Katie Couric – makes the entire novel about her. It’s all about her thoughts, her eyes, her reactions, her perceptions. (The other girls publish their stories in a supplement after Precious’ story ends.) And so, shifting the focus to anyone else would ultimately start to overshadow the story of Precious. Even for a moment.

So while I think the film does an amazing job walking the tightrope between humanizing Mary and keeping her at arms length, ultimately, this story belongs to Precious.

There is so much more I could write – perceptions about the film, familial violence, sexual abuse, black stereotyping, the single story conundrum, other critics take’s, race and Oscar bait, what I thought about Erasure, which was a literary response to Push – but those will have to wait for another post.

Reveling in Bleakness [Racialicious]
Erasure [Amazon]
The Not-Rape Epidemic [Racialicious]
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire [IMDB]
On Representation: Push versus Precious [Feministing]
Reflections on Lola [The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao] (Part 1 of 2) [Racialicious]
Katie Couric Interviews Sapphire [What About Our Daughters]