SUBJECTS — Health; ELA (for cross-curricular assignments); Psychology;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Child Abuse, Self-esteem, GBLTQ; Parenting; Taking Care of Yourself;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility, Caring.
AGE: 15+; MPAA Rated R (for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language);
2009; 110 Minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Note to Teachers: This film can be deeply disturbing. Be sure to watch it and the deleted scene of the incest survivor’s meeting before showing either to students. Especially for this movie, it is important to get administrative and parental permissions.
TWM suggests that Health teachers who use this film coordinate with ELA teachers for the writing assignments set out at the end of this Learning Guide.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Film Study Worksheet for Precious [although the film is a work of fiction, it is so accurate that it requires a worksheet patterned from worksheets for documentaries]; and
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.
Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
Claireece “Precious” Jones is 16, morbidly obese, illiterate, and pregnant with her second child. Her teachers ignore her and her classmates tease her. Home life is a nightmare. Precious is required by her mother, Mary, to cook, clean, and go to the store. Mary spends her days and nights sitting in a chair watching TV. When Mary does get out of the chair, it’s usually to beat Precious for some minor infraction or for no reason at all. In the meantime, Mary spews streams of verbal abuse at her daughter, telling “Precious” that she’s stupid and worthless.
But Precious is valuable to Mary because Precious and Mongo, the Down Syndrome daughter to which Precious gave birth at age 12, increase the size of Mary’s welfare check — although Mongo lives with Mary’s mother, visiting only when the welfare worker comes to check on the family.
That’s really bad, but there’s more to come. Precious’ two pregnancies were the result of serial rapes by her father, tolerated but resented by Mary — not because Mary objects to incest — Mary resents the fact that Precious “stole” her man and that while he gave Mary only one child, he’s given Precious two! Perhaps another cause of Mary’s abuse of her daughter is repressed guilt that she did nothing to stop the abuse when it began — when Precious was three years old. But perhaps not; Mary isn’t the type to feel guilty about anything.
Can it get worse? It does. The incestuous father gave Precious HIV.
However, when Precious is sent to an alternative school and placed under the tutelage of a nurturing teacher named Blue Rain, Precious blossoms. She gets over the fact that Ms. Rain is a “homo”, a group that Mary told her were dangerous, and starts learning to read. Precious gains self-respect, successfully delivers a healthy baby, escapes from Mary, and sets about the task of raising her children and getting an education.
The film is based on the novel Push by Sapphire.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
2010 Academy Awards: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Mo’Nique); Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Geoffrey Fletcher); 2010 Academy Awards Nominated: Best Motion Picture of the Year (Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness, Gary Magness); Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Gabourey Sidibe); Best Achievement in Directing (Lee Daniels)’ Best Achievement in Film Editing (Joe Klotz)
Gabourey Sidibe as Precious; Mo’Nique as Mary; Paula Patton as Ms. Rain; Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss; Sherri Shepherd as Cornrows; Lenny Kravitz as Nurse John; Stephanie Andujar as Rita; Chyna Layne as Rhonda; Amina Robinson as Jermaine; Xosha Roquemore as Joann; Angelic Zambrana as Consuelo Aunt Dot as Toosie; Nealla Gordon as Mrs. Liechtenstein.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
This film provides insight into what it’s like to be raised unloved, abused, and hopeless. It shows that with love and nurturing even children of the most dysfunctional families can move forward with their lives and attain a triumph of the human spirit. Showing this film and using the materials in the Learning Guide will increase understanding of the scourge of childhood sexual abuse. (CDC estimates are that about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be victims of childhood sexual abuse.) The CDC states that in the U.S. 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse before the age of 18.
The story also provides graphic depictions of the psychological defense mechanism of dissociation.
Watching this film with the scaffolding suggested by the Learning Guide will increase resilience in children subject to dysfunctional families and to sexual and physical abuse. In children who do not have to contend with those problems, the movie will expand empathy for those who are not so fortunate. As Gabourey Sidibe, the college student who played the lead role said,
I know this girl. . . . I’ve seen her, I’ve lived beside this girl. . . . I didn’t want to be friends with those girls because they had too much drama going on in their lives. I feel guilty for having ignored them.” (Interview with Roger Ebert).
The intense emotions raised by this film will drive writing assignments for the development of skills required by the ELA curriculum.
Serious. One incident of the incest/rape of a child and another of a woman masturbating are shown; however, the scenes are not graphic. Repeated instances of physical abuse of a child by her mother are shown. The film is shot through with profanity. The primary problem is the movie’s great strength: the issues raised by this film are very disturbing. However, they need to be addressed.
USING THE MOVIE IN THE CLASSROOM
Before Watching the Movie:
Tell students the following:
- The movie is based on the novel Push by the African-American writer Sapphire. The story shows a girl growing up in Harlem who is dealing with a terrible family situation.
- Precious and her parents are black because, like most writers, Sapphire felt that she could only write an authentic tale by describing the people and the community that she knew well. The reason that Push attracted national attention is because of the universal human condition described by the story, not because it was about black people or the community in Harlem. There are families of other races which are just as depraved as the people shown in this story.
- Dissociation is a psychological defense mechanism that occurs when a person subjected to a situation that they find uncomfortable or intolerable detaches from reality and goes into a fantasy world. It is often used as a coping or defense mechanism when a person is undergoing a trauma such as rape or sexual abuse.
Teachers should consider giving the class TWM’s Film Study Worksheet for Precious and review the questions with students before showing the movie. After the movie has been shown students can be required to provide responses as homework or as an in-class writing project. In the alternative, some questions on the worksheet can be used for class discussion.
After Watching the Movie:
Teachers should tell classes that since the story told by this movie was made, the social welfare system has changed and that social workers and police usually act quickly to protect children when there are substantiated incidents of child abuse. Mary’s father would have been arrested and sent to jail for raping Precious. If Mary’s physical and verbal abuse of Precious had been suspected, the home would have been investigated and Precious would have been placed in foster care. [This information can be transmitted to the class through direct instruction or through a class discussion using discussion question #1.]
Teachers should tell the class that despite efforts to stop childhood sexual abuse, it is still rampant. The CDC states that in the U.S., “About 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse at some point in childhood.” In a 30 student class with as many boys as girls that’s three or four girls and one boy who will be victims of sexual abuse by the time they reach the age of 18.
Teachers may want to have the class read the last paragraph of the narrative section of the novel. It supplements the ending of the film. The best time to read this passage may be at the end of the class discussion.
It’s Sunday, no school, meetings. I’m in dayroom at Advancement House, sitting on a big leather stool holdin’ Abdul. The sun is coming through the window splashing down on him, on the pages of his book. It’s called The Black BC’s. I love to hold him on my lap, open up the world to him. When the sun shine on him like this, he is an angel child. Brown sunshine. And my heart fill. Hurt. One Year? Five? Ten years? Maybe more if I take care of myself. Maybe a cure. Who knows, who is working on shit like that? Look his nose is so shiny, his eyes shiny. He pulling my earring, want me to stop daydreaming and read him a story before nap time. I do. pp. 139 & 140.
1. This story took place in the 1980s. Had Precious lived today, how would the child welfare system and the criminal justice system have reacted to her situation in ways that are not shown in the film?
See the section on “Before Watching the Movie”.
2. In which scenes is Precious shown dissociating?
All of her fantasy scenes. One example is the scene in which she is being raped by her father and bursts through the ceiling into a world in which she is a celebrity.
3. This story has many important themes. Identify two major themes of the story.
Students will formulate the themes in their own way. The substance is what is important. Students may also see additional themes in the film. The following suggestions are not in order of importance. They may overlap.
You are ultimately in control of your own life and you can build your own self-esteem.
It is never too late to take control of your life and be the person that you want to be.
People don’t choose their family or their circumstances in life, it’s what you make of the hand you were dealt that is the source of self-respect.
If nurturing love cannot be found at home, it can be found in other places.
A good and caring teacher can change a life.
A person who others ridicule for being overweight, ugly, damaged, or different is still a person worthy of understanding and respect. The college student who played Precious in the movie, Gabourey Sidibe, was referring to this theme when she said, “I know this girl [Precious]. I know her in my family, I know her in my friends, I’ve seen her, I’ve lived beside this girl. . . . I didn’t want to be friends with those girls because they had too much drama going on in their lives. I feel guilty for having ignored them.”
Some people, like Mary, are simply malevolent and damaged beyond repair. All you can do is to remove them from your life.
Parents are responsible for protecting their children, no matter how difficult it may be. Mary utterly failed in her duty to nurture Precious.
4. What is the significance of the names of the major characters in this story? Look for irony.
Until Ms. Lichtenstein came to the front door of Precious’ building and spoke to her through the intercom, everyone treated Precious like she was anything but precious. (Even her favorite math teacher did very little for her.) In that way her name is ironic. It was not until Precious started to take care of herself by going to the alternative school that she began to live up to her name. Only then did people start to treat her like the jewel that she was. There is also irony in the mother’s name. “Mary” is the name of the mother of Jesus and in Christian tradition she is the loving, nurturing force of the universe. However, the Mary in this movie is just the opposite. Finally, Blue Rain is the name of the teacher whose love and attention help Precious bring her strength and beauty to full flower. That is the essence of rain, which nurtures the plants on which all life is based.
5. At the end of the movie, Mary schedules an appointment with the social worker in which she tries to explain herself. First, Precious and then the social worker get up and leave. Was Mary simply evil and irredeemably broken as a human being? Or were Precious and the social worker wrong to reject Mary’s request for understanding? Also, under what circumstances, if any, would you advise Precious to try to reconcile with Mary later in life?
There is no one correct response. A good discussion will include the following positions.
- The argument that Mary was Simply Evil and that Precious was Right to Leave and Should Stay Far Away from Mary: Adults have obligations to protect children and Mary simply failed to fullfil that duty. In fact, she actively hurt Precious and used Precious for Mary’s own selfish needs. According to Mary, the sexual abuse began when Precious was three years old. There is no way that a child of three or for that matter a child of ten or fifteen can protect herself (or himself) from abuse by an adult. Mary also cheated the government and used Mongo for that purpose. Mary also intimidated her own mother and forced the older lady to cooperate in the deception of the government. There is, in fact, no element of Mary’s personality that shows any positive or redeeming feature. For Precious, the only way to protect herself from Mary is simply to leave. The social worker’s first responsibility was to Precious and she was correct to leave as well and to refrain from taking any further steps to get mother and daughter together. In fact, a strong argument could be made that all Mary really wanted out of the interview with the social worker and Precious was for Precious to come home so that Mary could get a welfare check again.
- The argument that Mary Should Be the Subject of Understanding and Compassion and that Precious, at Some Time in the Future, Should Give her Mother Another Chance: Much of the evil in this family was caused by the rapist-father Carl. When he rejected Mary in favor of Precious, he caused Mary to hate her own daughter. In addition, part of the reason that Mary hated Precious was Mary’s own guilt that she had not protected her daughter from the father’s sexual abuse. Mary couldn’t face that guilt and it was easier to think that Precious had no worth. Were Mary to admit her own failings, go to therapy, and truly repent, there is an argument that Precious should allow Mary a chance to be close to her daughter.
- Synthesis: The description of the psychological mechanisms that were working in Mary do not excuse Mary’s conduct. Mary was the adult, the mother, and she had obligations to her daughter that she did not fulfill. Whether Mary, with a lot of therapy, could reform and find a way to redeem herself would really be up to Mary. People have done worse and redeemed themselves. In any interaction with Mary, Precious must fulfill her own responsibilities to her children by making sure that Mary is never in a position to hurt them.
6. How should Precious explain his parentage to Abdul? Should she tell him the truth?
There is no one correct answer. One argument would contend that the truth is always better. Abdul needs to be taught that we don’t choose our parents, we choose who we become; we don’t choose our circumstances in life, we choose what we make of those circumstances. What Abdul needs to know is that his mother loves him and that she seized control of her life and made the best of her circumstances. Another position might be that if the secret could be kept, then it would be better to lie. If the secret could not be kept, then it may or may not. It might depend upon the whether during the period that the lie was maintained Abdul could develop enough self-respect to weather the disclosure if the truth came out.
Additional Discussion Questions.
8. What was the strongest emotion that you felt when watching the film?
There is no one correct answer.
9. What happens to Precious’ self-image over the course of the story?
She has a very poor self-image at the beginning of the film. By the end of the film her self-image is stronger: strong enough for her to reject her mother’s description of her as dumb and not educable, that she can care for her children, that she can live on her own.
10. What happened to Precious would totally destroy many people. Yet, Precious was able to respond to Ms. Rain’s caring and teaching. What made Precious able to withstand abuse that would have crushed many people?
There is no one correct response. A suggested response is that Precious was just strong. At the first sign of nurturing love, she was able to blossom. She had an inner strength.
11. The name of the novel on which this movie is based is “Push” What is the significance of that title?
This is an injunction that one must push the boundaries of one’s life. Precious must work hard to learn to read, to learn to take care of her children, to overcome the injury caused by the incest and abuse etc. “Pushing” is what life is all about.
12. What do you think of the ending of the story?
There is no one correct answer to the question. A good response will discuss hope and HIV.
13. The author of the novel said, “One of the myths we’ve been taught is that oppression creates moral superiority. I’m here to tell you that the more oppressed a person is, the more oppressive they will be. (Bomb, Fall 1996) Do you agree or disagree?
There is no one correct answer to this question.
An Exploration of Why Children Don't Report Child Abuse
7. [Before asking this question consider showing the deleted scene of Precious in the incest survivor’s group. In that scene Precious discloses that eventually she came to enjoy the sexual intercourse forced upon her by her father. This scene was too raw and truthful to put into the movie but is included in the deleted scenes section of the DVD.] Ask the class to think of the reasons that children who are physically and sexually abused usually don’t report that abuse. A full discussion will cover the following topics; a good discussion will cover most of them. The reasons are not set out in any particular order.
a. Fear for the Personal Safety of the Victim or Others: Abused children are often afraid that the perpetrator will hurt them or others; abuse is ultimately an exercise of power by the perpetrator over the victim. Often abusers will threaten to hurt the victim or other family members.
b. Guilt: The perpetrator will convince the child that the abuse was the child’s fault; that somehow the child caused the perpetrator to take the wrongful action, either because the child is too pretty or seductive (sexual abuse) or that the child was too disobedient or willful and caused the adult to loose his or her temper (physical abuse).
c. Shame and embarrassment:
The child will feel ashamed or embarrassed at being the subject of abuse or about actions that the perpetrator led the child to take; either in cooperating in the abuse or extending the abuse to others.
Biologically, sexual contact is made to be pleasurable and often the child will feel pleasure in sexual abuse. Precious described this to the incest survivor’s group. The child will then feel ashamed and embarrassed about having these feelings and that there is something wrong with him or her when in fact it’s only natural. Guilt also plays a role here; the child may feel guilty about the pleasurable feelings. One of the terrible things about childhood sexual abuse is that it turns what should be a wonderful experience into something sordid and conflicted.
d. Fear of Disrupting the Family — Family Loyalty:
Children may fear that if the abuse is reported, the family will be broken up or that a perpetrator who is a family member will be punished and that the family and thus the child’s life will be drastically disrupted. Perpetrators often play on this fear to secure silence from their victims.
The child accepts the abuse because the child is emotionally attached to the abusive family member and wants the love of the family member.
In some cultures sexual activity or what happens in the home is very private and not to be disclosed to non-family members.
When relatives are economically or psychologically dependent on the perpetrator, children will be reluctant to cause problems in those relationships; e.g., the mother will be hurt if the child were to disclose that the father was abusing her and the family could not survive economically if the father was jailed.
e. Protecting Siblings: Children may believe that by accepting the abuse, they are protecting other siblings from abuse.
f. Becoming Co-opted by the Perpetrator: In situations of sexual abuse, the perpetrator will enlist the child as co-participants in keeping the abuse from others: “it’s our little secret”. It’s very flattering to a child to be a co-participant with an adult in taking some action. Co-option of the victim also occurs when the perpetrator leads the child to participate in the acts of abuse or in assisting the perpetrator in abusing others. This is compounded by guilt.
g. Fear of Disbelief: Many children feel that they will not be believed, especially when the perpetrator is an important and respected member or friend of the family.
h. Abusive Activity as Normal: Some abusers may convince the child that the abuse is a normal way of showing love within the family.
All of the discussion questions related to this topic.
1. What does it take for Precious to develop self-esteem?
Love and caring from an adult. In this case, it was primarily her teacher, Ms. Rain who nurtured her. Then Precious had to learn to act on her own behalf, i.e., to make decisions for her own interests, even if she would act at the expense of others. The first good decision that Precious made this was to go to the alternative school in response to the slight amount of interest in her shown by principal Lichtenstein. Another was to keep going to the alternative school despite resistance from her mother. Another was to leave home.
2. What is the theme of this film that relates to self-esteem?
See Themes A-C in the suggested response to Discussion Question #3 in the Guide.
3. What does this story try to tell us about people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual?
They can be caring, nurturing individuals and great teachers just like other people.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
1. State two themes of this film that relate to caring?
See Themes D — H in the suggested response to Discussion Question #3 in the Guide.
See the question relating to GBLTQ topics in these Supplemental Materials.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Most of the discussion questions in this Learning Guide and in the Supplemental Materials can be used as essay prompts. If students were given TWM’s Film Study Worksheet for Precious teachers can have them prepare written responses as homework or as an in-class writing assignment.
Additional ideas for assignments are set out below.
1. Write a description of where Precious and her family will be in five years. The description should at least answer the following questions: Will Precious be able to survive as an HIV positive person? Will she still be a mother to her children? How good a mother will she be? Will she be pursuing her education?
2. It is five years later and Precious is dying of AIDS. Write the letter that she would write to Abdul to be opened when he was 12 years old.
3. Imagine that you are a film critic for a major newspaper. Write a review of the film, “Precious”. Be sure to support your conclusions with evidence and logical arguments. Your review should provide a one-paragraph description of the film that will tell the audience a little about the movie without giving away the entire plot. It should also include your view of the strength and weaknesses of the movie and your evaluation of the experience of watching it.
4. Read and analyze the Langston Hughes poem em>Mother to Son and describe whether the themes of this poem relate to the themes of the film. Who in this story can you see reading the poem to whom?
5. Read the Screen Play for Precious and pick out four scenes that relate to important themes of the film. Describe the theme and how the passage relates to the theme. Try to avoid scenes in which the theme is explicitly stated.
CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS
Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.
Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.
Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.
Speaking and Listening:
Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.
Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.
BRIDGES TO READING
The novel on which the movie is based raises additional issues such as Mary’s sexual abuse of her daughter. TWM recommends the book for sophisticated high school students and college classes.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- Sexual Abuse Statistics from the National Center for Victims of Violent Crime;
- The Movie Review: ‘Precious’ by Christopher Orr, The New Republic, November 13, 2009;
- Precious, Sexual Abuse & Eating Disorders Published on December 28, 2009, by Susan Albers, Psy.D. in Comfort Cravings in Psychology Today;
- In-Depth: Understanding Dissociative Disorders by Marlene Steinberg, M.D.;
- Reasons that Children do not Tell from Child Safe of Central Missouri;
- Why Don’t Child Sex Abuse Victims Tell by David M. Allen, M.D. in Psychology Today, October 22, 2012;
- Child Sexual Abuse Facts Children’s Assessment Center; Houston;
- Screen Play for Precious.
See Links to the Internet and the Reader’s Guide at the end of the novel Push by Sapphire, First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, May 1997. All page references in this Learning Guide are to that edition.
This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden.
This Guide was last revised on April 19, 2020.