About a month ago one of the students was explaining his tattoos to me. He showed me his mom's name, his grandma's name, and various curlicues. But I was curious about a delicately scripted PUSH on his wrist. He translated it for me: "Pray Until Something Happens." I thought about that later, because although I recall being taught to pray for God's solution, I just assumed it might not necessarily be my kind of solution. Maybe Pray Until Something Happens is another riff on my childhood theology. I just hadn't looked at it that way.
Then I took myself on a date to see the fine, skin-pricking movie, "Precious:Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire." Talk about praying until something happens. The characters in this film may not overtly pray, but they surely endure until something happens--the somethings that are both expected and unexpected in an abrasive, treacherous cityscape. Precious Jones is an unloved, functionally illiterate, pregnant teen plodding through the dreariest existence imaginable in Harlem, 1987. The opening pulls you right down into gray-black-white grittiness with a slash of red provided by the titles. (You can trace that red throughout the story if you like to look for color motifs.) I admit that I was prepared to find Precious repellent before I ever met her. But I grew intrigued with her stoicism, her carefully tended bangs, the follow-through that I know it takes to enroll in an alternative school. Certainly, Precious has little reason to be resilient. And yet I started to root early on for Precious not to have the tenacity beat out of her. Precious is no angel--she clocks several characters in the course of the film. But she has this life force that will not be extinguished.
There is a great New York Times Magazine article, "The Audacity of Precious," (Lynn Hirschberg, 10/25/09) where director Lee Daniels is profiled. Daniels greeted an audience at the Cannes Film Festival announcing, "I'm a little homo, I'm a little Euro, and I'm a little ghetto," and the crowd roared approval at his precis. Daniels says he likes to cast comedians and singers as film actors, and he really is onto something in "Precious." Mo'Nique tears the roof off in the final soliloquy. That speech has to be the most riveting, profoundly painful, shocking statement in a movie already loaded with human suffering. Lenny Kravitz warmly provides the convincing male anchor of the ensemble. Mariah Carey, at first unrecognizable, is as plain and wryly world-weary as a lot of us are when we labor to make a system beat with a human heart. If you check out the article and its accompanying video, it will enrich your understanding of what went into this film. The film's potency lies in its ability to coax identification from disparate viewers. For example, many's the time in my own teaching job when I think to myself, "Try harder, Jean. This child was once somebody's baby." And then I read Mr. Lee Daniels his own self says, "Even the most evil person was somebody's baby one time..." Yes, he is referring to the character Mary Jones, but for us it's exponentially larger than that. When a monster of a mother can plaintively cry, "Who gonna love ME?", we all need to think about whom we have loved and who may yet need our love in all its myriad forms.