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December 20, 2009

Breaking abuse cycle starts with love

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP


“Precious” is a hard movie to watch. The title is the ironic name of a young woman (played with perfectly stifled emotion by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) who is anything but precious to her brutal parents (her devil incarnate-mother is played by Mo’Nique). Based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire, and set in Harlem in 1987, “Precious” is an unblinking look at abuse of every kind heaped upon an adolescent who is basically treated as a slave in her own home.

“Precious” is, overall, a life-affirming film — not in a facile Hollywood fashion, but in a “wisdom of the streets,” “life goes on” sort of way. Somehow, the girl Precious (in addition to her own kind and stalwart heart) finds enough people to help her make it through. She lives, discovers, accepts and then changes her life story with the same simplicity to which she has reduced her almost monosyllabic verbal communication.

Some African-Americans are reacting to the film by saying it stereotypes the experience of black poverty. Others say it’s about time everyone saw what’s really going on. But “Precious” didn’t have to be an African-American story. Precious could be anyone in any neighborhood, who looks like everyone else (although Precious’ abuse made her obese) and goes about her day like everyone else. Inside she is trapped in her own private little horror story. This happens everywhere unfortunately.

The film makes subtle social statements about the welfare system, illiterate students being advanced year after year, the ideal and emulation of whiteness by nonwhites, superficial social work, even fast food compromising health in lower-income neighborhoods. The way out? Education.

There’s a familiar role in “Precious” of the self-sacrificing, personally involved teacher. But thankfully, this part doesn’t overshadow Precious herself.

Precious is a story about breaking cycles — the cycle of abuse and unchecked hatred of a most devastating kind. About the almost limitless ability of human beings to alter any situation, no matter how ingrained or bleak. It starts with love. Love of self. In Precious’ case, being able to say one good thing about herself.

Although some have not found much hope in the film (no widespread systemic social change is forthcoming), the transformation really happens at the level of caring individuals, keeping Precious and her ilk from falling through the cracks totally. When things are the worst, Precious builds daydreams where she is the star and treasured that help her get through.

The story is left unfinished, but somehow we know that Precious is going to make it because she now knows who and what she is: precious.

“Precious” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language.

Burns, who ministers in Chicago, has a philosophy/theology degree from St. John’s University, N.Y., and studied screenwriting at the University of California.