By Amey Victoria Adkins, D’09
Research Assistant, Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School
Let me be frank: Everyone should see the movie Precious.
I’ve talked about it, read about it, heard about it, prepared for it, and finally, after missing two sold-out showings, I’ve seen it. I sat in the unprecedented stillness of a full theatre as I watched Precious,; the story of a battered but resilient young woman originally characterized in the novel “Push” by Sapphire. The movie postures us in the world of Claireece “Precious” Jones, a dark-skinned, overweight 16-year old black woman enduring physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuses unspeakable—she is already pregnant with a second child from episodes of serial rape by her own father.
**Please note that the preview below may contain offensive language.**
What I have not loved, however, is the way that a story like Precious seems to be so easily escaping us. With so many advocacy groups jumping on board to promote their cause via the conduit of the movie, it is difficult to discern the ways in which making this movie a “call to action,” be it against child abuse or growing illiteracy rates, performs a reduction of what is most profoundly at hand—even though Precious is a fictitious character, the people who do identify with her circumstances can’t be reduced to causes. For others concerned with painted pathologies and “inside” conversations being hung out to dry, therein also lies a tired tactic of evasion. I think that this narrative has something deeper to teach, particularly to those who claim to be Christians.
I found it no coincidence that God is not found in the places one might think in this story. By my count, there are only two explicit references to the divine throughout (at least asserted by Precious herself). Once, Precious throws off on the idea that “God or whoever” is looking down from above. No surprise seeing that she hasn’t seen salvation from the frying pans that her mother throws unrelentingly at her head. The other overt and inherently Christian reference occurs in a moment of desperation.
At one of her lowest points, Precious and her newborn son Abdul (an interesting choice of an Arabic name, meaning something akin to “servant of God,” given that her daughter with Down’s Syndrome is named Mongoloid. “Mongo” for short.) have barely escaped a violent death at the hands of Precious’ mother. It is Christmas, and she is afraid, exposed and running for her life. Holding the tiny baby in the wintry cold, swaddled in the blanket covered in her own blood, Precious walks past a church mission. An unmistakable cross looms above her and she peers through the gated door. Looking through the window, a fleeting daydream transforms the gathering inside into a warm holiday choir scene, with she and her newborn fully robed and rejoicing in praise, her light-skinned-curly-haired husband looking adoringly over her shoulder. They are clean, every hair is in place, her makeup is beautifully done, and her imagined partner even holds a small pet dog in his arms. It is the perfect nativity, and yet, the falling snow transforms us again to the painful fragility of the moment: for Precious, there is no room at the inn. Even the doors of the church are only unlocked by her imagination.
And yet, there is an unmistakable salvific community for Precious—just not the kind of community most of us would imagination. Moved to an alternative school after her second pregnancy, Ms. Rain’s classroom becomes a kind of “church,” a place where she is affirmed and encouraged, a place where her gifts are stirred, a place where her promise is called out. It is a rather motley crew of outcasts who gather each day in the tiny classroom on the 11th floor. Immigrants, teenage mothers, minority women facing the harsh realities of a world where they don’t quite fit, all led by an amazing teacher who happens to be black and lesbian. It is here that Precious finds worth, community, dignity, support, and most of all love.
After yet another unrelenting blow of tragedy, Precious sits in the classroom vacantly. She is at the end of her words; she has nothing left to write. Precious laments, “Nobody loves me.” She begs of her teacher, “Please don’t lie to me.” Everyone in her life who was supposed to love her failed. And only in that space, in that community, is Precious reminded of real love. And perhaps for the first time, someone she can trust has told her: “I love you, Precious.” When there was no where to go, when the doors of the church were locked, Precious went to school, and waited for her family—not that by birth or blood, but that by a deep kind of other bond—to come for her.
I think that this brings us closer to the point. In a conversation with beloved sister-theologians of color the other evening, we began to discuss the way that Katie Couric struggled to maintain her bearings while interviewing Sapphire a few weeks ago about the story. At one point, her worlds failing, she stutters “I just can’t imagine.”
I realized, in that moment, that Couric’s efforts represent our problem precisely. The Church maintains a tenuous theological imagination, one that often asks the wrong question. Because I don’t think that our deepest call is to finds ways to imagine ourselves inside of the horror, experiencing the trauma of Precious’ story. Far too many women and men already live inside of this intimate space of negotiation day in and day out—and there is too great a chasm that will either cheapen the very real experiences of so many people in the world, or further distance us away from one another. Imagination, in that instance, is a luxury.
But perhaps what is critical for us, is the question of whether or not we can imagine ourselves living with, journeying with, being present with, working with, and loving with someone who is marked by such intense suffering. I read an interview online where Lee Daniels, the brilliant director of the movie, stated that prior to this work he had a negative stereotype himself of fat black women. He was disgusted by it, but his confession was true. Precious was a mirror into his own thoughts. Precious challenged him. Perhaps, then, if Precious can challenge Lee Daniels, Precious should be challenging us in the same kinds of probing ways. And for the church, perhaps Precious can be a kind of mirror to who we say that we are. To who we say God is. And to how we live into the unimaginable grit of a tortured but risen Lord.
Do we see Precious? Can we imagine ourselves kissing her on the forehead? Cleaning the blood off of her young baby? Letting her stay in our homes? Not reducing her identity (read: her badgering school principal’s irresponsible teenage mother stereotype) to a problem of ethics? And for those of us who navigate the spaces of pain that remain far too often as silent realities in our midst, can we imagine facing the lies we’ve been told? Can we imagine the continued perseverance and grasping for hope even when it seems senseless?
I think so, but not if we are alone. Not if churches don’t see their need of the Precious living on their block. Not if we realize that our single garment of destiny has no hem without her. Not if we miss opportunities to have truth-telling break the demonic silences in our midst. This movie is one that bears theological weight upon the issue of real presence in the world, and the one scene featuring the inadequacy of the church-as-institution is one worth mulling over. For if we refuse Precious, have we not refused the gift of our Lord?
Note: This movie is too graphic for children and young teens. And, you shouldn’t go alone.