20 November 2009

She Didn't So Much Believe in Miracles as She Made Them Happen

During my teaching career I tried to impress upon my students the following: one of the greatest signs of a person's self esteem and intelligence is their willingness to ask for help.

I also preached about the absolute necessity of self reliance, that ultimately any success a person enjoyed in life was because of their own initiative.

These are not mutually exclusive maxims. The kind assistance of others aids our efforts but they must be our efforts.

Proof of this is what makes director Lee Daniels' new movie Precious such an inspiring story. A lot of films promise to "lift our spirits" and make us "believe in the impossible" but most are just hokum. They sentimentalize hard edged truths or ask us to accept the barely plausible. Their gloss includes over wrought soundtracks, dulled edges and stick figures for characters.

Not Precious.

There's no powdered sugar sprinkled anywhere here.

Clareece "Precious" Jones is an obese teenage girl pregnant for the second time by her father. The girl can barely read, struggles mightily in school, lives with an abusive mother who tells her she's stupid and that school is a waste of time. Her first child has Down's Syndrome. All she has to cling to is her rich fantasy life. It's the kind of reality that far too many Americans deal with and far too few are aware of.

Over 20 years in public schools in an urban area has exposed me to lots of girls like Precious. As a regular classroom teacher you have maybe 130 students. You are supposed to be able to prepare them for the next level of education or the world beyond school. In some cases you aren't aware of their stories and in those cases that you are, there's little you can do. If you now a child's father is in prison and the mothers a crack addict and the child usually doesn't get enough to eat, you still have to make him be quiet when he's disrupting the rest of the class. Later you sit and talk with him but he's distracted, and anyway you're a history teacher not social worker or a psychologist. It helps that you care, he knows you do -- maybe -- but you feel helpless. Imagine how he feels.

You wonder "what will ever become of" these kids. Sometimes you get the tragic news, other times you have no idea what fate awaits them, sometimes though, they end up like Precious.

I hesitated to see the film because I worried that it would be too gloomy. I even had a been-there-seen-that feeling. But this the story of one of the lucky ones. Someone born with enough pluck and latent intelligence to take advantage of a helping hand or two and begin the long slow process of pulling herself.

Clueless commentators proselytize about poor people needing to use their proverbial boot straps and not rely on "government hand outs." As if everyone came with a pair of bootstraps and directions on their use. You'd think from these buffoons that a lot of poor people in hopeless situations were well satisfied with their lots. In truth we have young people all across America trapped in desperate circumstances. Without a nurturing parent or access to healthy meals, surrounded by negative influences and rampant violence, some young people start their lives in very deep holes.

Precious looks dumb. She looks hopeless. All that weight adds to the sense that any light within her could never possibly get out. But a few people do the right thing and she has the sense to take advantage. She takes a step for herself in the right direction then plugs away.

Here's something that, based on my experiences, I've believed: a lot of children in dire situations need special attention, which means very small classes. Our students at the greatest risk are often the ones stuck in classrooms of over 30 students. But reducing class sizes costs a lot of money. Meanwhile the military gets all the money it needs but schools dare not even ask.

Precious gets into a small schooled designed for, let us say, troubled teens. She comes under the tutelage and care of a teacher who can and does make a difference. Many teachers can if given realistic odds and resources. Precious begins to stand up to a mother that is trying to make a personal maid of her, one stripped of any dignity.

Precious the movie works because it stays close to real truths, yet offers a glimmer of hope. It is utterly unflinching in its depiction of the kind of lives too many young Americans, too many of whom are people of color, are stuck in.

Gabby Sidibe is a revelation in the title role. It's difficult for me to adequately credit a performance that was so real to what I have personally seen so often. She's an amazing young actress. The comic and talk show host Mo'Nique is the mother and she managed to convey rage, bitterness and hopelessness without turning her performance into parody. Paula Patton was the teacher and besides being a striking woman, gave a striking performance. A huge surprise was that the mousy but tough social worker was played by Mariah Carey. I honestly would have thought they'd just hired a real social worker for the role for authenticity's sake, so convincing was her performance. The pop diva can act? Who knew? So many wonderful surprises in this film. Obviously Daniels' direction was spot on. He gave the story the treatment it deserved. So many directors would have created false heroics or trivialized small characters or employed a saccharine soundtrack. Daniels made all the right choices.

I'm glad Precious is getting a wide audience. I just hope it's wide enough. Many people who should see it, won't. I also hope that some young people who see it will learn its lessons and that they will start to ask for help, when needed, but ultimately take responsibility for their own lot. I hope too that it message gets through to the thicker skulled in this country who thinks poverty is a thing of the past or a choice. That's a lot of hoping, but hey, if works for Precious....

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