In New York City's Harlem circa 1987, an overweight, abused, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.
A powerful drama about hope in the face of severe adversity, Precious shines a light on the American welfare state, touching upon compelling social and public health issues of generational poverty, sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS, mental health, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, and poverty. Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, the film is set in Harlem in 1987, where Claireece “Precious” Jones, is a 16-year-old African-American teen who endures unimaginable hardships. Abused by both parents, impregnated—twice—by her father, and betrayed by the city’s educational and social-service systems, she grows up poor, illiterate, obese, unloved, and generally invisible. Referred to an alternative school by her principal, Precious thrives under the mentorship and experimental pedagogy of Blue Rain, her pre-GED teacher. Moving from self-loathing to determination, Precious learns to read, finds her voice and ultimately, herself.
In 1996, Push by the poet Sapphire was published as a hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Drawing from her work with young women in Harlem in the 1980s who were living through crises similar to those of the fictional Precious Jones, Sapphire’s Push received critical acclaim for exposing the exploitation experienced by real people whose stories often go untold.
That summer, Director Lee Daniels bought a copy of the book and was struck by the familiarity of personal and systemic dehumanization. “From page one, I sat there with my mouth open: this was a world that I knew intimately,” recalls Daniels, who grew up in West Philadelphia. “I had many relatives who resembled Precious physically, and I had many friends and relatives who didn’t know how to read but somehow got by in life. My neighbors, my relatives and I, we all know the politics of dealing with the social worker, waiting for her to come and hiding certain things so that she wouldn’t see them.”
Set in Harlem in 1987, Precious captures the temperature of a period when the conservative backlash against the welfare state and widespread economic disinvestment from inner-city communities created a class of chronically unemployed and underemployed workers with limited opportunities for economic mobility. Persistent poverty, coupled with the infiltration of crack cocaine into inner-city communities, resulted in the collective vulnerability to a variety of economic, social, and medical outcomes. Inspired by the way Sapphire was able to represent the complexities of urban life, Daniels notes, “By the end of the book I thought to myself, ‘Wow. How do you bring this to the screen?’ Because people needed to know about this world.”