what i'm watching: two movie reflections, part one: precious

We watched "Precious (based...)" last night. I haven't read the book yet, and I purposely stayed away from reviews, as I always do before I see a movie. I found the film compelling, convincing, and very authentic. "Precious" is a story of self-emancipation from degrading and soul-destroying experience. It's hopeful, but still realistic.

"Precious" is not the standard-issue heroic-teacher movie, where the iconoclastic teacher never quits on the toughest rebel cases, and together they forge a bond to pass the big test and change their lives. The character Precious makes her own decision to change her life. That is, indeed, the only way change happens.

Of course she has help. No one ever does it alone. No one of any age gets out of a trapping situation without support and assistance, and certainly not a teenager. It can't be done. But the will to accept help and explore options must come from within. I thought the movie showed that. Precious decides to try the alternative school, she decides to let people into her life, decides to share her story (often the focus of liberation), decides to say, "Enough!" to being her mother's slave. Decides to break the cycle and love her baby.

Coming to the movie relatively cold, I didn't know it contained a portrait of an alternative inner-city school. This was exactly the kind of centre where I tutored and taught, and those were exactly my students: Adult Basic Education (ABE) for young people who had already dropped out of school. My students faced seemingly insurmountable challenges, but they hadn't given up. They were still reaching out for help.

The classroom scenes were dead-on. I laughed with the accuracy and authenticity - and I hurt a little, because I loved that work and I sometimes miss the unique joys it brought. The only hint of inauthenticity that I found in "Precious" was that lovely tiny classroom with maybe eight or ten students. There may be programs like that, but they are rare.

This was the mid-90s. A social worker told me that one-third of the students in my class were HIV-positive.

In a comment on an earlier thread, a reader found "Precious" contained that racist Hollywood cliche where the white hero swoops in to save the poor darkies. To my relief, I didn't find that in this movie at all. Although the social worker played by Mariah Carey may be white - or may not be - the movie doesn't cast her in a saviour role. Precious has to disclose her burden in order to get help, and she has to make the decision to go back to the familiar hell or face the vast unknown.

* * * *

Many people believe incest to be a bizarre and rare phenomenon. It is anything but. A history of childhood sexual abuse is extremely common among low-income and homeless populations - not because poor people are more likely to commit incest, but because sexual abuse easily creates the conditions that lead to a lifetime of poverty. A child who grows up with sexual abuse and never gets help is extremely likely to drop out of school, live on the street, do sex work, become a drug addict, have inappropriate relationships resulting in lots of children for whom she is unprepared to care, end up in prison, or any combination of these. One of the few places I've seen the link between poverty and sexual abuse made visible, outside of social service settings, is in David Shipler's book, The Working Poor (a very good book, worth reading).

The key is getting help. I've shared "survivor panels" - public speaking about personal experience surviving sexual assault - with incest survivors; there were several in my Model Mugging group. In all honesty, I am in awe of them. To grow up in a home where you never feel safe - to be sexually assaulted on a regular basis - and to be utterly dependent on your assailant for survival - yet to survive, recover and transcend - is truly to live a heroic life. The women and men I met who had done this were all living "normal" lives - relationships, careers, the works. But they had done a lot of work. It's definitely possible - but not alone.

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