Even though the film Precious packs quite a wallop, the gritty realism of the novel upon which the movie is based is even more intense. Originally called Push (but recently renamed Precious to coincide with the film), the book, by the writer known simply as Sapphire, tells the story of a dark-skinned, heavy-set, illiterate African-American girl who has survived multiple pregnancies by her father.
Sapphire tells Michele Norris that she began the book in 1993, just as she was about to leave her job as a remedial reading teacher in Harlem to attend Brooklyn College's MFA program: "I had the intense feeling that if I didn't write this book no one else would."
The author says that she encountered girls like Precious while teaching — overweight girls who didn't fit into the confines of our society's beauty paradigm, girls who were essentially "locked out" of the broader culture.
"I wanted to show that this girl is locked out through literacy. She's locked out by her physical appearance. She's locked out by her class, and she's locked out by her color," says Sapphire. "I encountered this. I had a student who told me that she had had children by her father."
Almost as soon as the book was published, Sapphire received proposals to turn it into a film. But she turned them all down — including an offer from director Lee Daniels. But then she saw Daniels' films Monster's Ball and Shadow Boxer and reconsidered:
"I just knew this was the person who could do this, although none of his films dealt with the issues in the book," she says. "But because he had gone over the edge with his own work ... I thought, 'This is someone who will not back up from the material and will present something true and vital to the public.'"
Though she initially worried that allowing her work to be adapted to film would reinforce negative stereotypes about the black community, Sapphire says that times have changed in the 13 years since her book was written.
"In 2009, we have a tremendous range of black families in the media, form the Cosbys to the Obamas, so now, I think, we are safe enough and secure enough to show this diseased situation with the hope that we can see it as something that needs to be healed, as opposed to something that we need to hide from the public's view," she says.
And, Sapphire says, she hopes that her film will inspire people to have more understanding and compassion for girls like Precious. Recently she was approached by a white woman in Utah who told her that after seeing the film that she would never look at an overweight black woman again with the same judgment:
"After seeing this film, she had to deal with an obese black woman as a feeling, intelligent person as a person who dreams, as a person who wants the things that she wants. So we brought up a stereotype, and we cracked it open, and a human being comes forth."