I’ve spoken to In Contention‘s Kris Tapley about Lee Daniels‘ Precious, and he’s not a flag-waving, come-this-way devotee. But he did officially predict yesterday that it would win the Best Picture Oscar, and he did call it the Best Picture front-runner on 10.21. And I think this view needs to be reconsidered.
Precious is probably a guaranteed Best Picture nominee, and it will translate all the awards heat into box-office revenue between now and early March, and good for that. And hey-ho to the people running the Precious campaign so far — excellent work. But it won’t take the Oscar. Count on it.
Precious is primarily about a film about compassion and reaching out, but mainly in the third act. Otherwise it’s an exploitation film that deals in ghastly abhorrent behavior. It drags the audience down into a pit of gross squalor and baldly manipulative chain-pullings. I respect Precious for providing the emotional comfort and catharsis that Gabby Sidibe‘s character (and the audience) so desperately needs, and I love Mariah Carey‘s quietly gripping performance. But I’ll never see it again. Because the first two acts are way too appalling.
I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of interest or enthusiasm for the Precious experience among Academy voters. There was an Academy screening of the film last Sunday night (11.8), and I’m told by two sources that only a bit more than 300 people showed up. (Roughly 1000 people showed up for a recent Academy screening of This Is It, the Michael Jackson doc, and District 9 allegedly drew a much larger crowd last August.) And the biggest applause was for Mo’Nique and Gabby Sidibe rather than Daniels. So they may be good to go for acting noms but the film? Maybe, perhaps…who knows?
Nobody will admit it, but Precious has been very effectively sold to mainstream white critics as an all-black, Oprah Winfrey-approved movie they need to respect if not praise because it’s a family-values film that wears its heart on its sleeve in the third act. And if they don’t wear this very same heart on their presumably liberal sleeves in their articles and postings then maybe, just maybe…well, who’s to say what they really feel deep down?
A producer friend reminded me a little while ago that “most people don’t want to see movies with unattractive stars.” Another guy I spoke to, industry-employed, says that “the problem with Precious is that this girl is in your face…the other part of it is that people have come to this film ready to accept, because of the marketing, that it would be an inspirational story, but the reaction I got from two guys was ‘I expected to be teary-eyed but I was dry-eyed throughout.'”
There’s a limit, I think, to the amounts of abuse and cruelty that audiences will sit through in a film — a line that Precious crosses, I feel. “At the end of the day it’s a movie, and you’re trying to get people to go to the movie, and you have to do something to get people out of their fucking homes,” the industry guy said. “At the end of the story she leaves at 17 with a child or two, and you’re left at the end with…what? And we’re supposed to ease up on the mother after the confession scene in Mariah Carey‘s office? The mom is a complete Satanic creature…beyond the pale.”
“This is a very flawed movie that’s playing on white guilt,” he continues. “Oprah and Tyler Perry are doing it to you. People can’t admit to guilt, but this is what’s in play.”
It’s been said that DreamWorks marketing honcho Terry Press tried playing the white-guilt card with Dreamgirls, and that it backfired in her face. “I don’t get up in the morning without remembering — this is an all-black cast in a musical, knowing an all-black cast has never won an Oscar,” she told L.A. Times columnist Patrick Goldstein in a 12.5.06 article. And it didn’t even get nominated for Best Picture.
There’s also the latent feeling, as expressed earlier today by Anthony Smith, that the basic situation in the film — i.e., the prolonged sexual and emotional abuse of a young girl by an evil mother and her rapist stepdad — is and should be repellent to middle-class African Americans because this sort of thing is an aberration that creates a demeaning stereotype about the lower end of African-American culture.
What does it say, exactly, about white moviegoers’ attitudes and beliefs about black culture that they’ve accepted the sexual-child-abuse story in Precious as being somewhat representative of a certain kind of down-at-the-heels African American family? I wonder how a movie like this would play if it was about sexual child abuse by a mother and father who were white lower-class crackers in Alabama or Southern Indiana? What would the reaction be if the same story involved a Spanish-speaking family in East LA or North Bergen, New Jersey? I’m just asking, wondering.
Are the makers of Precious trying to get us to see it by playing on vague feelings of racial guilt and that longing we all share of wanting to understand and somehow lend support to sad disenfranchised people by listening to their story and, for a couple of hours at least, living in their world?
Here’s a just-posted piece by The Envelope‘s Tom O’Neil that addresses the Precious situation. He thinks it might win but he’s basically hedging his bets.