The movie opens with what looks like a classroom in chaos. The teacher is issuing instructions under the sound of students talking (we can’t hear what he says). There is paper flying, laughter and mayhem. The camera slowly focuses on Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones who sits at the back of the classroom quiet and immobile.
The phrase ‘Requests < Requirments’ is written across the chalk board and that missing ‘e’ is perhaps indicative of an education system which just can’t get it right. Students are screaming and fighting and Precious sits at the back of the classroom and tells us that she doesn’t speak up.
This movie is about her, an illiterate, obese girl in 1987 Harlem who is pregnant by her father for the second time and abused by her mother. The story, however, isn’t just a grim representation of her reality; there is colour, music and passion. Every time something awful happens to the main character the movie switches to a scene where she is happy, flamboyant, where she shines, is the star of her own show and she has a young good looking boyfriend. ‘Did you ever hear a dream talking?’ she asks and it is these dreams she hears and they are bright and don’t compare to Harlem.
Most of the movie shows a Clareece devoid of expression, no feelings allowed as she gets pushed and shoved through life (sometimes literally) except occasionally to lash out physically. She tells us that she gets tired of lying so she begins to let things out, first through speaking and then through writing.
There is a focus on education and ‘reading and writing is everything’ her teacher tells her. The initial demonstration of what education means is a scene where Clareece can’t tell which button to press in an elevator, standing there, not knowing where to go. The deeper part is Clareece in her alternative class at ‘Teach one, Each one’, stating that she had never spoken in class before and it made her feel ‘here’. Being present, in the moment, perhaps? Existing.
When I left the Watershed cinema on Monday I found myself thinking that this was a movie where race didn’t matter and I had to stop myself accepting that thought. Just last week there was uproar when Chris Matthews, an MSNBC ‘talking head’ said that for an hour he forgot that Obama was black and he called it a post-racial society.
What I had meant was that expressing yourself can be hard enough, doing it in writing when you initially can’t distinguish between letters must be terrifying. Being suspended from school for being pregnant, being raped, beaten, told to get on welfare, having item after item being thrown at you (only the TV misses), is shown as a depressing existence. What do I project that Matthews meant when he said what he said? That when he previously thought of a black man, it didn’t encompass the role of leader; of president of the United States.
When I spoke of not seeing race I meant that any person regardless of origin would have related to the character’s situation and recognised her struggles. However the context which is portrayed in the movie is not devoid of some relationship with ethnicity, with being African American. “Nearly a quarter of African American families live in poverty, with even higher poverty rates for single male-headed households (27%) and single female-headed households (40%)”. (http://avert.org/hiv-african-americans.htm)
One person’s struggle is an individual in isolation and as a member of the audience I can suspend disbelief and identify with her. If I was living her life as depicted then I would do the same things. But people’s experiences and behaviours don’t occur in isolation. She is not the only illiterate person that goes to the alternative school, she is not the only one who attends an incest survivors’ group and is not the only one in the fast food restaurant at 8.54 in the morning getting a 10 piece bucket of fried chicken for breakfast. In the alternative school there are other pupils who draw out their alphabet letters with measured concentration after a reminder from the class about which letter follows ‘d’.
There are a few references to welfare and there are few ‘white’ Americans shown. One interesting addition is a role by Mariah Carey as the welfare officer and Clareece asks her whether she’s white or black. A little aside that points to real life gossip about Carey’s origins and it’s a happy moment and Clareece smiles through the interplay.
One of the most powerful moments for me was when she comes back from the hospital having just given birth, is beaten and attacked viciously by her mother, leaves home with just her baby and has nowhere to go. There can’t be many more desperate moments in life. A young girl from the same apartment block pesters her, Clareece shoves her forcibly aside and it feels perfectly normal. A valid demonstration about how it’s all one continuous cycle from being abused to becoming the abuser.
‘Love never got me anywhere’ cries Clareece, ‘I never had a boyfriend, my dad said he would marry me, I was raped and beaten’. ‘That’s not love’ her teacher tells her.
Two paths are shown in the movie, one of abuse and one of escape. We don’t get to see the thought process that leads Clareece to show up at the school rather than the welfare office when she gets suspended but there is a feeling that she is just moving and luckily in the right direction.
The movie offers a glimpse of what hope looks like and it’s not grand visions but a day to day presence and putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again. It’s a poster with a circular message that says ‘feeling good about yourself will lead to more reasons for feeling good about…’. We watch Clareece going from place to place while her mother sits at home on the armchair watching game shows. Befriended by her new teacher she glimpses a lifestyle nothing like her own. ‘They talk like people on TV channels I never watch’ she tells us and it makes her happy even when she can’t understand them.
The movie’s message is about how education can be a powerful tool for expression even when you don’t know if you have anything to say. We hear the possibilities open up when Clareece asks ‘What’s an alternative’ and is told that it’s a choice.
Precious is playing at the Watershed cinema in Bristol until February 11.