Precious, Take Our Hand

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Let me be frank: Everyone should see the movie "Precious."

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.

Comments

Amey,

Thank you for this blog. I think that you point to some critical and yet convicting issues embedded deep within the story of Precious and even the role of the church. And you're right... how will the church will respond? how can the church respond? and even then... is the way that we re-envision who we are called to be sufficient?

Well done Amey! And even more, how will the church respond to those globally whose stories don't have the privilege of being told on the big screen? Human trafficking victims, modern day slaves, child slaves...

Amey,

I think the key, like you brought out so well, is debunking the "I just can't imagine" myth. The subliminal lie we all carry that another person's strange and foreign and dangerous suffering...is "too much" for us. That it is "beyond" any emotional fortitude we are certain we don't have to believe it. So, if we just say, "I can't believe it," long enough and ensure that we've established enough programming that consolidates all that suffering into statistics we can fix, then we won't have to believe it. As if somehow in objectifying the desperation as "inconceivable," we've really shaped a New World in which it is inconceivable.

And when we contort all our efforts in this direction, making castles that elevate us above that-which-we-cannot-imagine, there's no time or energy to love. And know. And taste and see. And be.

Which is why when watching an interview between Katie Couric and Sapphire, you can hear the clang of two different languages being spoken (while I don't mean to pigeon-hole or generalize either one of them). One language that speaks the tongue, "I cannot imagine." And one language that says, "I WILL imagine so that I can be a human with you and not in spite of you or away from you or around you. Your life helps me know mine. I WILL imagine because you have CAPTIVATED me."

I will imagine. I will try to hear. Katie is my kin, and that route to "safety" is so well-worn in my family and church. . . the route to safety by which there is no place for Precious, no place for lament, for real wounds. My eldest recently told me that she wishes she hadn't learned the definiton of the word "rape" when she was so young. I decided to take her with me to the Take Back the Night rally, right after the Lacrosse case came out. A group of div school students had asked for us to come. Connie and Joey Shelton, then the Field Ed directors, brought their daughters too. Our oldest daughters were listening, and they learned that night the definition of "rape." I told myself at the time that it was an apt way for her to hear the worst, because she was also marching with women who were shouting a call and response: "Show me what surviving looks like!" "This is what surviving looks like!" She saw what surviving looks like. But she now wonders if it was worth being scared for months after. I also told myself that this was part of her Baptism, because the text the preacher had chosen for her Baptism was the concubine story from Judges. (That is another story.) I think so much of the climb up out of imagining the world Katie doesn't know is from some sense of protecting and sheltering and keeping ourselves and our daughters out of knowing. But this keeps us from being moved, moved right into places and schools and congregations where the wounds are more obvious. In my own supposedly "safe" congregation, there are stories of abuse, all hidden, so that no one has to know or hear or imagine. ALH

I think we also have to take into account, that there is no way that we can function faithfully as a church without knowing the stories of the people. Our problem is that we don't know the Precious' of the world, we don't want to know the story, we don't want to be there.

Who are we when we don't even know who our neighbor is?
How can we discern our journey and life together?

We can't "miss opportunities to have truth-telling break the demonic silences in our midst." To break the silence... is to be quick to listen, and bold to speak up.

thank you for this blog posting.
I will share it with others, wrestle with the questions and live into the answers.
thank you.
lar

Amey, Thank you for your prophetic voice! Jenny Graves

Wow, powerful.

Hi there,

Thanks for this wonderful piece!

It is interesting that you said that this film is too graphic for teens when thousands of them are living this existence every day of their lives...even the teens who are showing up in church every week.

Even with that said, I do believe that there are other ways to open dialogue with teens about parental rape, clergy rape, other types of mental and emotional and spiritual and physical abuse...than to bring them to see "Precious".

I haven't seen any online discussions from any ministers who have blogs (including my blog) that discusses the lesbian couple who brings Precious under their roof and Precious' reactions to see two women in a loving relationship.

The discussions that I have read online about the film offer curiously different insights - depending on whether the person interpreting the film is a sexual abuse survivor (or knows one).

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!
Lisa

With all the graphic depictions of violence, rape and war, many of us can imagine Precious' world. What we don't know is how to walk with Precious without trying to 'fix' her. How do we offer help that is enough without trying to make Precious like ourselves?

My goddaughter's 60 IQ daughter is being lured/captured regularly by gang members who sexually assualt her. I no longer know how to walk with this family that I sponsored in baptism and confirmation. I answer phone calls, I send food cards, I send gifts, but I know in my heart that I would vomit if I truly could imagine their lives.

Amey,

Once again you have written a brilliant theological piece. I want to be like you when I grow up.

I've not seen 'Precious' yet, though I've been excited about it since its limited debut. Many conversations about it swirled around me over the last couple of weeks. Most of what I heard was critical. Some said the movie was too unbearable to watch, others commented on the portrayal of light skinned heroines and dark skinned villians, while others lamented another film about black folks that represented pathological blackness to a white world.

These things notwithstanding, I've wanted to see the movie for myself to make my own observations, especially as a theologian and minister.

Amey, you've brought out a number of great points. Among them was the powerful claim that imagination can be a luxury when we think about the lived horrors of people who'd rather not imagine, yet alone exist within, their reality. Imagination can sympathetic, but may do nothing to truly redress the situation. Better yet, as you say, is a committment to walking, talking, and being present with the Preciouses of this world. In the movie she's obese, abused, and black as night, seemingly undesirable and invisible, yet her name Precious is a constant reminder that she was fearfully and wonderfully made by a loving, though oftentimes incomprehensible, God. How can we stand with "her" and proclaim the Good News that she is somebody, and that because she is somebody we will work to grant her peace and justice?

Additionally, your observation that Ms Rain's classroom becomes alternate sacred space, a kind of secular church, is right on. Speaking of imagination, I wonder if church folks can imagine such spaces as theological spaces of healing and transformation, much more equipped even than our traditional Christian settings? Can we ponder how God is moving in mysterious ways outside of the intitutional Church? Using ordinary people, including this black lesbian, to offer a kind of salvation to the invisible of this world? Ministry is not jut behind pulpits or seminary lecterns, ministry takes as many forms as God allows, and sometimes it's in those other spaces that we truly see the manisfestation of God.

Even more, for those who had an ear, maybe the Spirit was speaking through this movie, in the sacred-secular movie space, calling us to see the invisible, to take seriously their pain, to wrestle again and again with theodicy, to honor their stories, and to offer real healing to all. 'Precious' should not simply be a movie to us, but a parable, one that calls us to act passionately and faithfully for the wretched of the earth.

CJ Rhodes

P.S.: Your title not only reminds me of the Dorsey song, but also of the fact that maybe we shouldn't be leading Precious but that she should be leading us. She, and all who share her story, have something to teach us. She can 'lead us on and help us stand.'

CJ Rhodes

This was many of the same questions I asked yesteday while watching. I m glad someone else noticed this too! thank you.

One thing that i wished you would have speak on was whe she say heself in the mirror she imagined herself a a skinny white girl. Also the crush on the white teacher. I wondered on how she took this as a way to be in a better life. I think i am going to write on that.

Good post

Good article, but watch your grammar...4th paragraph "with SHE and her newborn baby." Should be "with HER and her newborn baby!"

I'm a bit confused that one wouldn't make an editorial comment on grammar privately? I'm not sure if the previous comment was meant to offend or to somehow demean your points, but it seems a bit one-uppish. (Yes, this is a neologism).

Especially given a movie about an illiterate woman. The whole point of the movie was to draw out the critical importance of this woman's story, whether she spoke the King's English, American English, or supposedly "broken" English.

That said, Amey, you have done a wonderful job. You've helped me begin to process what we can learn from Precious in a way that doesn't co-opt or commodify her body to a particular cause, or for a particular community. It is certainly time for us to think long and hard about the reality of the world we live in, one where imagination truly is a luxury.

I know that this is a preliminary piece, as not to spoil the story for us, and to begin navigating such a dense film. However, I wonder if we might hear from you again on some of the other points in the movie -- colorism, aesthetic desire, and the ways that Precious' own imagination is formed beyond her life? I'm also interested in how communities, particularly Christian communities, can begin to engage the wounded realities so many parishioners face, not just from a spiritual or faith perspective, but from a thorough psychological account of surviving trauma? In a world where nightmares are coming true (for instance, the tragic death of Shaniya Davis), perhaps we need to realize our broader need (from alternative schools to psychologist's couches) for conversation, dialogue, and contributions to be supportive communities?

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about and learning about the social justice implications of storytelling, and even more than the telling of stories, our ability to listen to what we hear. I work with women who have had abortions and there is so much in what you write that relates to my work. Especially the part about how advocacy groups will use stories. Abortion stories are only accepted if they are used to further established political points (stories of regret to prove abortions hould be illegal or stories or relief and empowerment to prove it should stay legal). Rarely are stories heard so that we may learn new things, question our own assumptions or find out what a person's true needs are and how we might be their witness as they go about meeting them. So many women who have had abortions are Christian or religious and yet their church, their faith, their community is unwilling to listen, be with them and support them in being well. I hope you keep writing on these themes. They are so important to so many people.

Good theological reflection Amy:) Precious’s story is also the narrative of that girl in Ghana, the U.K and Austria. She was told times without numbered that even though her father/ counterparts desecrated her temple; she is responsible for the unfortunate. Hence, she is put on display for the rest of the world to say, "Look, she can't think for herself" lets save her.

Kamille Williams, great question, that is why I respect you:))

Amey. again, you're writing just keeps pushing the boundaries.

***Movie Spoiler Alert***
Remember the scene when joann, I think is her name is teaching the class because she's the oldest... they begin to label each others... sluts, immigrants, can't speak english well.

All I could do was sit in the theater... dumbfounded and think, aren't they exactly the ones whome Jesus has come to be with... aren't they they ones that we should desire, isn't their brokeness our brokeness?

I'm not sure if this is the right response, but I feel very selfish after seeing Precious. I know she had it bad, but in the end somebody loved her. It sucks that someone has to have it that bad before their cries are heard by our spirits. What about those of us who don't have it that bad, but are still crying out. Don't get me wrong I loved the movie, yet I realize that there is piece of Precious in all of us. Am I selfish for that? Am I selfish for wanting to be heard? I'm not sure, but I know there's a little bit of Precious tied up in all of our stories.

Mon⋅gol⋅oid  [mong-guh-loid, mon-]
–adjective
1. resembling the Mongols.
2. Anthropology. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of one of the traditional racial divisions of humankind, marked by yellowish complexion, prominent cheekbones, epicanthic folds about the eyes, and straight black hair, and including the Mongols, Manchus, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Annamese, Siamese, Burmese, Tibetans, and, to some extent, the Eskimos and the American Indians: no longer in technical use.
3. (often lowercase) Pathology. (no longer in technical use) of, affected with, or characteristic of Down syndrome.
–noun
4. Anthropology. a member of the peoples traditionally classified as the Mongoloid race: no longer in technical use.
5. (usually lowercase) Pathology. (no longer in technical use) a person affected with Down syndrome.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/mongoloid

If you're speaking to those who labor in the black church, I'd say, give us more credit.

Tales of incest, illiteracy, perversion, and poverty float through the office of black pastors quite often.

Lovingly, don't be so Duke... meaning it sounds like you're addressing an issue or asking a question but still too lofty and distant from what actually is happening in the church.

Many black pastors can tell you about Precious and how three people had to hold her from shouting. Talk to us, the black church, not a Duke professor. We know Precious. She's our cousin, or she rode on the bus to school with us, or we had PE with her, or she was in our church youth group, we see her in the mirror when our cute white male friend doesn't ask us out, come on... We are not that "high cotton" (blacks) when walking through the doors of Duke. Talk to us...

Great article Amey!! Way to go you keeping digging to deeper levels!!

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