Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Is Precious failing to cross over? Or did its distributors fail it? (And the race controversies of Precious)

EW’s Owen Gleiberman recently ran a piece on whether Precious is failing to resonate with wide audiences after a stellar run in limited release.  In another post, he suggests it “peaked too early.”  He worries that the film was only intensely appealing to African American and Art-house audiences, who largely drove its huge initial run.  Rather than psychoanalyze the film’s mass appeal, I favor a simpler explanation—the film was simply overshadowed by other Oscar-contending and heavily buzzed about pics, and didn’t reach audiences while they still had mental space for it.  To me, it seems like a case of the distributors failing to seize upon the positive initial buzz and expanding while people were still talking about the movie.  Slow releases have worked for indie films before, notably Napoleon Dynamite, but only where buzz was slow to build.  Precious has been out in industry circles since January ‘09, when it premiered at Sundance under the title “Push”, and was generating huge positive press, such as a front-cover Times magazine piece, right around the time of its limited release.  I think the distributors made a mistake by continuing to bank those big per theater grosses, without realizing they were coming at a cost to the film’s ultimate theatrical run. 
Trying to go wide at the same time as big-time Oscar contenders like Up in the Air, Invictus, and Nine (which fizzled all its own) and crowd pleasers The Princess and the Frog and Avatar just didn’t make any sense.  I thought they were smart to launch their movie before the big holiday blockbuster minefield, but then why wait so long to go wide? 

Precious opened on Nov 6, in just 18 theaters, bringing in a monster $104 thousand per theater.  On the Nov 13-15 weekend, the film was still in only 174 theaters, but came in third place with a healthy $5.9 million take.  Then the film expanded to 630 theaters, but was pushed down in ranking by openings by New Moon, The Blind Side, and Planet 51, but still managed to double its gross.  This is where I wanted to shout “Go wide now!  Now!  Or better yet, last week!”  Because then came Brothers, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air, Invictus, The Princess and the Frog, and a hundred other movies to occupy the press and the public’s attention.  And so the film languished in around 650 theaters until December 18, the same day Avatar opened, by which time per-theater takes had dropped, and the expansion seemed futile. 

That said, it still made a healthy $44 million total, it’s just too bad the movie didn’t reach a wider audience.

I say too bad because I personally loved the film, despite its flaws.  I saw the movie with girlfriends soon after it opened in limited release--we had to try twice, the first time it was sold out (everywhere—that was how hot this move was when it first opened), the second time we bought tickets in advance.  I was crazy about Gabourey Sidibe’s fearless portrayal of a soul that's anything but shattered, despite what it's had to endure, and Mo’Nique’s unrecognizable turn as a monster mother, who was nonetheless a wounded creature herself.  Moreover, nothing illustrated Daniels’ casting brilliance more than Mariah Carey’s unbelievable transformation into a dowdy social worker who—despite inevitably hundreds of cased with similar echoes—somehow managed to see the preciousness in Clareece Precious Jones.

As for Paula Patton’s performance as Blu Rain, personally I could take it or leave it.  I believe this casting choice embodied something that makes Lee Daniels a less-than-perfect filmmaker, and if I were going to psychoanalyze here, I would say it has to do with Daniels' ambivalence toward his own race.  Casting Patton as Blu Rain whitewashed a character who was supposed to represent everything Precious had been taught to despise about blackness—dark skin, dreadlocks, and a lesbian to boot, though that stayed in the film.  Patton's light skin and straight hair (I know that she is African American, so some people would say this argument is ugly and colorist) removed a fundamental piece of Precious’s transition from self-loathing to hope.  Blu Rain was supposed to represent black love.  The other side of Precious’s mother’s hate-filled coin.  Instead, on screen she became a visually white woman reaching out to another dark-skinned charity case. This argument has been made by Jezebel, who note that when Patton’s Rain urges Precious to “write,” it veers dangerously close to the “nice white lady” savior territory of Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds.

I don't buy into the criticism that the film presents an unfair stereotype of black life, and a negative narrative that could only have been brought to film by white bleeding hearts and self-loathing blacks (and it has been made).  Daniels argued in the Times piece that he felt comfortable putting this image out there only now with the Obamas in the White House, providing a powerful counternarrative of black life.  If that's not enough, I would say Sidibe's totally awesome media appearances have provided another powerful counter-image.

At the end of the day, I loved Precious and hope more people see it.  It is a flawed, but ultimately moving and compelling film.  But, if people don't see the film, then please go get the book Push and read that.  Push is more brazenly honest, more horrific, more hopeful, and more moving (and more vivid, despite the more limited media).  It is probably the best book I read this year.

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