Friday, November 13, 2009

Most of the reviews are in, and if it weren't for Wes Anderson's new animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Lee Daniels might have the most critically acclaimed motion picture of the year.

Precious, based on the novel Push, by the poet Sapphire, is finally going into wide national release today, but most critics have been gushing about this gritty little film for weeks.

Even before it had a distributor, I wrote about Daniels and the Sapphire book right here on my blog, especially after the film won prestigious awards at Sundance and Cannes, something close to the equivalent of Best Picture Prizes at both festivals.

I called my previous post "Sundancing with Controversy," because I thought that Daniels had chosen a very difficult book: the first-person story of a poor, sexually-abused (by her father), HIV-positive black teenage mother named Precious Jones who has to negotiate a cruel and unforgiving world. Daniels court's controversy in his films, so I wasn't surprised that he'd gone after this powerful (and disturbing) little book. Here's some of what I wrote about him back in January:

Lee Daniels is the unconventional filmmaker responsible for helping to create provocative and disturbing independent films such asMonster’s Ball (famous for Halle Berry’s controversial sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton) and The Woodsman (which boasts Kevin Bacon’s riveting and sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile). Shadowboxer, his 2005 directorial debut, was most cited for its incestuous interracial sex scenes (between Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Helen Mirren). But I own a copy of that movie simply to show people its bizarrely unexplained (and matter-of-fact) depictions of a suburban Philadelphia landscape seemingly awash in stray Zebras.

In all of his films, Daniels pushes the envelope. He usually rips and defaces it, too.

And just as I thought, even though most reviewers applaud his film as "unforgettable," "remarkable," and something that, according to Rolling Stone, will leave audiences "moved like no film in years," one or two critics have come down very hard on Precious. For example, Armond White's NYPress review has been making the rounds as the harshest version of this anti-Precious critique. "Not since The Birth of a Nation," White writes, "has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious." Quite a claim!

My colleague at Penn, Salamishah Tillet, has penned a very thoughtful reading of the film that places its generally positive critical reception in conversation with the venom that Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple received. Her essay puts the film's critical praise in a much more productive and robust cultural/political context. And it might help us to unpack some of White's hostility, too.

Has anyone out there seen the film? (It has been in NYC for at least a week.) If so, what's your verdict?

It just got to Philadelphia today. So, I'm planning to buy a ticket for the weekend. As you can guess, I'll give you all my two cents after I see it.

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