10.18.09

Imagining Precious

Sapphire didn't want her 1996 book about a teen who endures unspeakable abuse to be sentimentalized.

Beyond the red carpets and talk shows, Oscar buzz and celebrity cameos, Precious remains rooted in two key figures: its titular protagonist Claireece “Precious Jones” and Sapphire, the woman who wrote Push, the nearly 15-year-old novel on which the film is based. Precious, the character, played by Gabourey Sidibe is a flow-chart of human misery. Slipping through the cracks of a social services system fated to fail her, she is taunted for her size, teased for her dark skin, and nearly tossed aside for her lack of schooling. But mostly, Precious is invisible—a faceless, voiceless outlet for her father’s lust, her mother’s rage, and a crack-fueled 1980s culture of expendability.

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Yet within Sapphire’s hands, Precious is brutally and honestly rendered human. “Ralph Ellison spoke of an invisible man, but girls like Precious are our invisible young women—not seen by their own people let alone white society,” says Sapphire, who counts everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Ellison himself as literary totems. “But Precious is a deeply introspective, deep-thinking character and this propels the narrative,” she continues. “[The novel] is not a ‘violence in Harlem’ story, but the rich inner life of a girl who at times may feel crazy or seem paranoid—but is merely reacting to what is actually going on around her.”

Stephen Farber talks to Precious director Lee Daniels about his own remarkable odyssey.Startlingly realized in Precious’ teen-ghetto patois, the book, which is now called Precious to coincide with the film’s release, heaves with the alienation of the urban poor. Sapphire describes this “period language [as] a magical thing,” gleaned from the decade she lived in Harlem teaching literacy skills to children and adults. Broken and incorrect, Precious’ vernacular may feel foreign to folks below 125th Street. But evolving and enlivening over the pages of the novel, “Precious is transmuting the horror of all that’s around her through the process of learning,” Sapphire says.

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That process is propelled by the guardian angel Ms. Rain, a formally educated and unapologetically lesbian teacher clearly unimpressed with conventional thinking. Despite the obvious parallels (Sapphire worked as a literacy teacher in Harlem and the Bronx for seven years), Precious is not an autobiography. Rather, Sapphire sees her book as a tribute to the armies of behind-the-scenes activists—educators, social workers, shelter volunteers, HIV counselors—committed to keeping the Preciouses of the world from lifelong obsolescence.

They’re all on the screen. And in a touching twist of verisimilitude, Sapphire is too, briefly back among young people as an extra in a day-care center scene. “The film helps put Harlem on the map and Precious on the map, but also these young professionals on the map,” Sapphire says. “These are vital, involved people who are mostly absent from typical images of the ghetto.”

Precious is a brazen tale and Sapphire is a ballsy storyteller, well aware of the cultural—and box office—limitations of a character like Precious. She never doubted, however, that there was a movie her book, certain it “could be an artistic success, maybe with a two-week run at the Film Forum” and an afterlife as an art-house DVD.

But having held out for more than a decade, Sapphire also recognized an ally in director Lee Daniels, who spent years convincing Sapphire he possessed both the creative and emotional depth to make Precious whole. It wasn’t an easy sell for the young filmmaker, who produced Halle Barry’s Oscar-winning film Monster’s Ball in 2001. “Because of the material, I needed to know he wouldn’t sentimentalize or exploit Precious,” Sapphire says. “It couldn’t become some horror story, some sort of story from The National Enquirer.”

While Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey gear up for the rituals of awards season , Sapphire is still in the modest Brooklyn apartment where Precious first came to life. She’s happy to leave the spotlight to the stars, conceding she “doesn’t need to be a household name.” Instead, she’s finishing her long-overdue follow-up to the book, while enjoying the creative and economic autonomy routinely denied women like Precious. “I work where I want to work, I say what I want to say—I live my own story and surround myself with people trying to do the same thing,” says Sapphire. “Being an artist means taking risks and I won’t sell myself for some advance.”

As for Precious—who would today be a mother of two teens—how does Sapphire imagine her story ended? “In my perfect world Precious got everything she needed to move forward, go to college, and create a life for herself,” Sapphire says. “But the world is imperfect, and Precious could easily be working as a home care attendant somewhere in Brooklyn.”

The world Sapphire created for Precious has changed. With HIV now manageable and crack mostly a Giuliani-era relic, it’s easy to dismiss Precious’ surroundings as long lost to uptown gentrification and upward-mobility. And for some it is. Yet because of this, many are left much as Precious was nearly a generation ago: poorer and more invisible than ever before. This is the reality that keeps Sapphire writing and advocating. Precious may have brought the horrors of Harlem straight to the book-club bourgeoisie, but Sapphire never forgets even she isn’t off the hook.

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David Kaufman is a New York-based journalist who regularly contributes to The New York Times, The Financial Times, Time International and Wallpaper—and is the charming madness behind the blog TRANSRACIAL.