Reveling in Bleakness.

(A still from Lee Daniels’s “Push.”)

In grad school, I took an elective called Autobiografiction in Black, a course in first-person narratives illustrating a broad pastiche of Black life. The first novel we were asked to read was Sapphire’s Push. I read it in three days, growing more and more uncomfortable by the page. I had to take long, cleansing breaks after certain passages. Other times, I sat covering my mouth in disbelief at the central character’s myriad disfortunes. When the book finally ended, I wanted to hurl it across my apartment. My skin crawled for days and I felt betrayed by my professor. What possible reason could she have had for choosing this novel as the initial reading for her course?

Push is the story of Precious Jones, an obese and illiterate teen whose mother and father are sexually, physically, and emotionally abusing her. As a result of routine father-daughter incest, she is the mother of one child with Down’s Syndrome and is pregnant with a second. These horrifying occurrences are just the beginning of Precious’s troubles, but it’d behoove you to read the book to find out what else is going on.

Suffice it to say: Sapphire is relentless in her portrayal of this girl, who joins a literacy class and begins to slowly peek out from the cracks of her dark, shattered life and find a few rays of light.

People who love this book will tell you that it’s a triumphal story of hope in the face of brutality and despair. And it is. But for me, hope appeared too late in the work and retreated without a satisfying enough redemption for our heroine. I couldn’t stop mourning her abundance of tragedies, no matter what brief victories she won.

So when I found out Push was being adapted for the silver screen, I cringed at the prospect of revisiting Precious’s bleakly rendered world. I dreaded watching in technicolor all the awful things I’d imagined while reading. And I reeeally didn’t want to return to the hollowness that haunted the ending. What possible reason would Hollywood have for further dramatizing an existence as heinous as Precious’s?

It was certainly something to think about. Black American dramas have the tendency to pull their viewers into dark corners and assault them. The grittiest ripped-from-the-headlines realities and the woes so commonplace the news doesn’t bother covering them at all bogart their way into our fiction. Push will be no exception and I wasn’t sure if I should be pleased about that.

Then I found out Mo’Nique was gonna star as Precious’s mom and I thought, “Oh. It’s gonna be one of those movies.” I thought, “They’re gonna sanitize it, make it more watchable than it was readable.” Other casting news cropped up: Sherri Shepherd would be making an appearance, as would Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey. Then, word got around that Paula Patton would be Ms. Rain, Precious’s literacy teacher and guileless mentor. It began to sound like something that would air on VH-1 on a Sunday afternoon.

I worried.

Last weekend, director Lee Daniels finally unveiled his adaptation at Sundance, with newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as Precious and I checked Owen Glieberman’s review:

Push shows us how a young woman who is nothing but a thick, bruised wall of walking scar tissue slowly emerges, pulling herself out of her living hell, and Daniels demonstrates unflinching daring as a filmnmaker by going this deep, this far, this ruthlessly into the pathologies of rage and dependence that can still linger in the haunted closets of impoverished African-American life. Push is one of those films that make you think, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but it’s a potent and moving experience, because by the end you feel you’ve witnessed nothing less than the birth of a soul.

And then: Push swept the Sundance Film Festival Prizes. It won both the Audience and Grand Jury awards in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, as well as a Special Jury Prize for… Mo’Nique(!).

Something tells me I may have underestimated this flick—and its potential resonance. Something tells me that, no matter how many dark films about Black hardship emerge, there will always be room for one more. I suppose there are no stories our culture should cringe away from. There’s merit in them all, no matter how unimaginable.

Meanwhile, since Sundance was well underway when our 44th Prez was sworn in last Tuesday, the proceedings were saturated, for better or worse, with Obama shout-outs.

Said a possibly delusional, though probably well-intentioned Paula Patton:

I really believe the reaction we’ve gotten to this movie is a direct response to Obama being elected. I believe white guilt — whether it was right or wrong — dissipated. Now, screening this film for an audience that’s predominately white, they loved it. There was a white man there, 60 years old, you wouldn’t think he’d relate to any of us. He said, ‘I come to this festival all the time. I’ve seen maybe 75 films. This is the best one I’ve ever seen, and the only time I’ve cried in a movie.’ In that crowd in Salt Lake City, it felt like we were all one. I’ve dealt with racism in my way, and it was a healing experience to stand in front of that audience and be embraced, and loved. And I really believe that’s because we got over a major hump in America when we elected Barack. I don’t know if this movie would have played that well a year ago, or five years ago. I think it’s right on time.

These sentiments were tempered by her director, who opined during one of his acceptance speeches:

I think [this win] means there’s hope for people of color. Just because Obama’s president doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to translate down to our world of cinema. And I think what it does is reiterate and strengthen this power of, Get yourself a freakin’ video camera. And you go out and tell your truth. That’s what I started doing as a kid, and I think inevitably, it led to this. It’s just so much hope.

Push has yet to find distribution, which means that no wide release date has been decided. But with all its accolades, it’s certain to hit theatres in the not-too-distant future.

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29 thoughts on “Reveling in Bleakness.

  1. rakia January 26, 2009 at 11:04 am Reply

    I read PUSH years ago and was equally horrified and mesmerized. Sapphire produced a potent, lasting piece of work, and the publishing world really took notice of her at the time. Not sure what’s happened to her since then.

    I’m looking forward to this movie. A lot. Glad it’s done well at Sundance.

  2. ladyfresshh January 26, 2009 at 11:15 am Reply

    Something tells me that, no matter how many dark films about Black hardship emerge, there will always be room for one more. I suppose there are no stories our culture should cringe away from. There’s merit in them all, no matter how unimaginable.

    i think you summed it up there. i tend to shy away from most dramas black or otherwise, film or literature. it comes across as wallowing and voyueristic but i understand this is my cynical view and while i cringe at folks poking around in other peoples emotional tender spots i try to understand that these tear jerkers expands emotional understanding…though i still wonder if it just gives folks another template with which to plant stereotype.

    yes it’s very back and forth for me and this genre…i’m trying folks

  3. slb January 26, 2009 at 11:19 am Reply

    rakia: i’m not sure if i can take it. i, like most people who’ve read the book, am very curious about the way daniels interpreted it. and i’ve heard that gabby sidibe is exceptional (and i love a breathtaking debut performance… lol). but emotionally, i don’t know if i want to go “this deep, this far, this ruthlessly” down, as glieberman put it.

    lfresh: see above. i understand your reticence.

  4. GVG January 26, 2009 at 1:21 pm Reply

    You hit all the emotions I went through when i first read it, except I think at one point I actually vomited, and tried to put it down to breathe, but was so drawn to it that I had to pick it right back up and you were right on with most of the reasons I was scared about the film being made. The graphic parts were just as important to the story as the growing aspects, so to do it right meant you had to do it all and I wasn’t sure american film makers had the balls to “Push” it (All pun intended) anywhere near as far as Sapphire did. Then I heard Monique was involved and thought I was about to see a BET movie of the movie of the week version. I’d so love to be wrong about this one.

    I do disagree about your doubts about your professors choice. I honestly believe it should be required reading for all young women as I think “The spook who sat by the door” should be for all young blk and latino men.

  5. slb January 26, 2009 at 1:32 pm Reply

    GVG: what’s UP? how ya been, man?

    just wanted to clarify that i didn’t think she shouldn’t have included the book in the course; i just wish she hadn’t started out with that one. she could’ve tried to ease us into it…. lol

  6. Angela January 26, 2009 at 1:42 pm Reply

    “Reveling in Bleakness” is exactly what I accused Sapphire of doing when I read this book in undergrad. I questioned her motives, I questioned the publishing world’s enthusiasm over the book and, like everyone else, I feared a film adaptation.

    I agree that every story has it merits, and despite the ongoing tragedy in Precious’ life I saw the hint of hope at the end, but I thought it was a little too easy for Sapphire to cut out and run just as that hope was finally peaking through. By the same token I’d hate for the movie to add more optimism than the actual work provides. Guess I’ll just have to wait and see how it turns out.

  7. Steve January 26, 2009 at 1:52 pm Reply

    This is kinda unrelated but what’s the best way to see a Sundance movie since they often dont get distribution?

    Because I was curious about this movie from 2008 that apparently never got distribution http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1037004/

  8. ladyfresshh January 26, 2009 at 2:02 pm Reply

    Steve – i usually go to the website of the producers/directors of the movie/blog and sign on to their email list they usually give a heads up if they enter any more film fests or have screenings

  9. Aeon January 26, 2009 at 2:21 pm Reply

    yeesh. i’d really like to read this book now.

  10. rakia January 26, 2009 at 2:48 pm Reply

    Aeon, this is a must read. But be prepared. It’ll break your heart.

  11. shani-o January 26, 2009 at 2:58 pm Reply

    Thanks for the heads-up, slb. I hadn’t heard of this book (or film) but your post makes me want to read it.

  12. universeexpanding January 26, 2009 at 6:44 pm Reply

    I’ll have to get my hands on this book. Great post.

  13. G.D. January 26, 2009 at 6:56 pm Reply

    lf: does your stance on dramas extend to documentaries? do you subsist on a steady diet of comedy? self-help books? I’m intrigued.

  14. […] write about Sapphire’s novel, Push, being adapted for the silver screen. But write I did and here’s what I came up with: People who love this book will tell you that it’s a triumphal story of hope in the face of […]

  15. Michael January 27, 2009 at 7:20 am Reply

    I am reading the book now, and have been looking forward to the movie for a while. There is a you tube video of her audition for the film as well.

  16. Claudia January 27, 2009 at 12:32 pm Reply

    Has anyone else here read Percival Everett’s Erasure?

    If not, I highly recommend it. My understanding is that some of the satire and criticism in Everett’s book were inspired by Push. I am as undecided as many of the previous comments on the wisdom of bringing this work to the big screen. Generally, though, I tend to side with Everett’s view in questioning who exactly benefits from such deeply painful cautionary tales of black life. We most definitely shouldn’t shy away from black hardship and the real-life stories of suffering. But I wonder if novels like Push, that offer an almost hyper-real simulation of reality – what do they ultimately achieve?

    Ironically, I remember back when folks had some of the same issues with the film version of The Color Purple, and I am a huge admirer of the book and the movie. So I probably need to think this through a little more (smile).

  17. ladyfresshh January 27, 2009 at 2:06 pm Reply

    G.D. – i gear towards scifi/fantasy

  18. jiovanni January 29, 2009 at 8:25 pm Reply

    I read this book a few times. I remember feeling uncomfortable while reading it yet I was intrigued by the story and the literary elements of it. I am curious to see this adaptation of it since reading this. Thanks for posting about it. I had no clue about this.

  19. Zesi January 29, 2009 at 9:23 pm Reply

    “But I wonder if novels like Push, that offer an almost hyper-real simulation of reality – what do they ultimately achieve?”

    It depends on your view of the purpose of a novel. I think novels have purposes, some are social protest, some merely want to tell a story, but any good novel tells the truth, even if the truth is vicious and ugly. I think there’s room for extremely depressing stories about black folks as well as the not so. We spend too much time wondering and reacting to what “they” think; let your art be your art, and let there be more artists so we don’t have to have these discussions.

  20. Claudia January 29, 2009 at 9:43 pm Reply

    @Zesi

    Yeah, like I said – I’m still thinking it through. I honestly wasn’t trying to suggest that we should be concerned about what others think. I agree that there is room for the extremely depressing. I suppose I just wish that “the not so” were acknowledged as being as real and as authentic and as valuable as Push. It’s hard for me to put that desire into words without sounding elitist (or “bougie”?). I just know that there are other filmmakers out there who are expressing their creative freedom differently, but won’t get the media attention, which is unfortunate. There are the indie films – but only a scant few of those make it to where I live in South Carolina – I have to drive an hour to see “Slumdog Millionaire”!!! Okay, getting off topic, but thanks for the response.

  21. […] by Guest Contributor SLB, originally published at PostBourgie […]

  22. Tam January 31, 2009 at 12:44 am Reply

    I read Push when it first came out and that time I was working at a clinic for HIV+ women. Precious was like a composite of the women that I worked with. The whole notion of, “there but for the grace of God go I…” was something that I felt everyday that I went to work and with each page I read. It is one of the few books in my life that truly stayed with me, much like the job I had at the time did.

    I am so looking forward to seeing this movie – bracing myself for the darkness and brutality and hoping, REALLY hoping that it lives up to the hype it received at Sundance. Let’s see if it comes to lil’ old Lansing for longer than a week!

  23. GVG February 3, 2009 at 5:57 pm Reply

    LOL. Hello SLB,
    i’ve been here as usual getting my daily PB fix, just haven’t been in that much of a writing mood on any blog, including what once was my own. Guess all my opinions,concerns, rants have been regulated to my FB status bar.

    P.S. I remembered to check the follow up box this time.

    P.P.S. *waving at G.D. too*

  24. Question for the Room. « PostBourgie February 4, 2009 at 5:23 pm Reply

    […] the fact that Tyler Perry and Oprah teamed up to “support” Push (which slb discussed here) make you more or less likely to see […]

  25. […] “Push” when it swept Sundance last January. The good people at PostBourgie had an interesting thread going about the movie and the book back then. Feel free to mosey on over there for a looksy […]

  26. […] Hollywood elites like to give awards. But by all accounts, the movie, which is based on the book Push by Sapphire, is actually a really good one,* especially because of (not in spite of!) the acting by […]

  27. mel November 6, 2009 at 1:06 pm Reply

    “Black American dramas have the tendency to pull their viewers into dark corners and assault them.” — uuhh whaaaa??? this sounds racist

  28. Precious. « PostBourgie November 9, 2009 at 2:20 pm Reply

    […] of my deeper qualms with the movie echo Stacia’s feelings about Push, the novel by Sapphire on which it’s based. “What possible reason would Hollywood have […]

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