Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire
Directed by Lee Daniels
Screenplay by Geoffrey S. Fletcher
Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherry Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz
Produced by Lee Daniels, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Heller, Tyler Perry
What's wrong with these people?
Claireece "Precious" Jones is a 16-year-old with 99 problems. The Harlem resident is trapped in a domestic hell with her violent, undermining mother. She endures abuse from peers for her obesity. And she's pregnant as a result of being raped by her own father. Into this nightmare the film introduces a few rays of light from committed agents of the welfare state: a persistent guidance counselor who arranges for Precious to attend an alternative school, a no-nonsense social worker (whose worn tenacity is ably conveyed by the versatile Mariah Carey), and the beautiful, committed teacher Blu Rain, who patiently cajoles Precious onto a path toward a high school diploma and some control over her life. And there is "Nurse John," a nurse's aide at the hospital where Precious gives birth, who shows her compassion and generosity, and even suggests that she ease up on that McDonald's diet. As played by rock star Lenny Kravitz, John is a somewhat stern but upright and sexy straight man, and this is not lost on the uninhibited females from Precious's class who visit her in the hospital. Hollywood has not offered many strong, straight male nurse characters, and to the extent moviegoers see this portrayal as an indication that it's cool to be a "man in nursing," it is helpful. But "Nurse John" is not a nurse at all, even though he calls himself that. Blurring the distinction between registered nurses and minimally trained nurse's aides makes it harder for nurses to show that they are highly skilled, autonomous health professionals. In addition, the film's portrait of Blu Rain is somewhat idealized, and Precious's voiceover at times over-explains things. Still, with clever direction and some great writing and acting, Precious finds insight, nuance, and humor in what might sound like a hysterical vision of ghetto life. Precious won't give up while there is still some hope, and those who help her are skilled, pragmatic dreamers who see it as their professional obligation to make sure she doesn't. In that way, the film does have something like a nursing perspective. With that and a few years of college-level health science training, John can be a nurse!
The movie's early scenes establish Precious as someone who has little to be happy about or to look forward to. Although she is no fool and she seems to have scholastic aptitude, her school is somewhat chaotic, and the percentage of committed students there seems low. As Precious fantasizes about her math teacher, he spends class time explaining the difference between tasks the students must do and those they need not do. Precious is an outcast, with no apparent friends.
But it's at home that Precious really suffers, as her welfare-bound mother terrorizes her almost non-stop, not just making her do all the work, but striking her, throwing things at her, constantly telling her that she is ugly and stupid and will never amount to anything. Most of all, her mother seems desperate to deny her daughter an education, to make sure that Precious too will end up on public assistance. We learn that her mother's boyfriend, Precious's father, has raped Precious many times, and that she is now pregnant with his child for the second time. Her mother isn't exactly sympathetic; on the contrary, she blames Precious for what her father has done and she is intensely jealous of Precious. Precious tries to cope with all this and her resulting self-loathing by retreating often into a fantasy world in which she is a glamorous star, a celebrity who attends movie premieres with her hot boyfriend. At times, Precious sees herself as thin and white.
A woman at Precious's school who seems to be a guidance counselor chastises Precious for becoming pregnant again, but this woman also comes to Precious's apartment to try to get her to attend an alternative school. Precious's mother will not let the woman get any farther than the downstairs buzzer, but the woman still manages to give Precious the information through the intercom. (At another point, after some crackheads have been pressing this same buzzer incessantly, Precious's mother observes that they are "giving the ghetto a bad name.")
When Precious shows up at the alternative school, which is part of a program called "Each One Teach One," she enters a world in which people actually care about her. The person who really turns her around here is Blu Rain, who teaches a class of less than 10 students, almost all female, who are looking to get their GED diplomas. Controlling the class with a firm but benevolent hand, Ms. Rain gets her students to talk and write about themselves, and she listens. Ms. Rain urges Precious to "push" herself. Precious starts to open up.
But Precious also opens up to Ms. Weiss, a social worker, when Precious goes to seek benefits for the baby she will soon have. Precious tells Weiss what her father has done to her, and about a scam her mother uses to get Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits. Precious's nasty grandmother takes care of Precious's first child, who has Down's Syndrome; they call this child "Mongo," short for Mongoloid (really). The grandmother brings Mongo to the apartment Precious shares with her own mother for the periodic visits of a different social worker, in order to show that the child lives there and keep those benefits coming.
It comes time for Precious to have her baby. At the hospital, we see workers in scrubs wheeling her down the hall on a gurney. Precious is screaming in pain. One of the workers, who turns out to be John, tells Precious softly to "stop screaming." She cannot.
Afterwards, we see John tenderly helping Precious with her newborn baby.
Precious (voiceover): His name Abdul Jamal Lewis Jones. He healthy. His mama love him.
Later, John is sitting in a chair near Precious's bed, eating. She sits up, watching. Four of Precious's classmates from the alternative school are also in the room.
Precious: The food in this hospital is nasty.
John: It's not from here.
Precious: Where it from?
John: A little shop by my house where I get my organic food, so I don't have to eat that nasty mystery meat stuff they got downstairs.
Precious: Can you bring me something? I don't like fruit. I like McDonald's.
John: First of all, I don't eat McDonald's. Second of all, you don't need to be eating McDonald's either. It's not healthy.
Precious: But I like McDonald's. [To her classmates.] We all eat McDonald's, right?
The reaction is mixed. One classmate wants "some of that organic sh-t like you got."
John (to Precious): Well, I tell you what, when you get up out of here, you go with all your little friends, and you go to McDonald's and you get as much McDonald's as you want. But right now, you're going to take care of your health.
One classmate is clearly interested in John.
Consuelo: Are you a doctor? Are you a doctor?
John: Am I a doctor?
John: I am a nurse's aide.
The group laughs, calling him "Nurse John-John." One suggests it's funny because "you're a man."
John: You've never seen a male nurse?
One classmate says, "not looking like you do," and they laugh again.
John: Well, I am a male nurse. I am Nurse John McFadden.
Joann: So was you up in the room when she popped the baby out? You was like, all up in between her--
Precious: Joann, don't be nasty!
They ask Precious how the birth was. She admits that she screamed because it really hurt. Consuelo remains interested in John, asking if he's married, if he has a girlfriend. Precious teases her, saying John doesn't want her. Another classmate asks Consuelo why she doesn't "stop bein' a 'ho for 10 minutes."
John (to Precious): What's wrong with these people?
But that doesn't stop them, and one observes delicately that she wishes she was a "cantaloupe in that cup" of fruit John is eating. He decides it's time to go. He stands up, looks at the group, then turns to Precious and kisses her chastely on the forehead. Consuelo asks if she can get a kiss too.
John: Good afternoon, ladies.
The group bids goodbye to "Nurse John." Then they burst into a charming song.
Group: Precious and John-John, sittin' in a tree! F-----K-I-N-G!
The group speculates about whether John will be spending the night there, and whether Precious will write about him in the notebook through which she exchanges with Ms. Rain.
Precious does write to Blu Rain, but not about John. Instead, she stresses how much she wants to keep her baby, and still go to school. Ms. Rain responds, in the notebook, that she thinks Precious's first responsibility has to be to herself. She urges the new mother to come back to school, but also asks Precious to consider whether being a good mother might mean letting Abdul be raised by someone who's better able to meet his needs.
While Precious is still in the hospital, John stops by and gives her a Christmas card, as it seems to be that time of year. Inside the card is a $20 bill. We see that he has signed the card: "Love, Nurse John."
When Precious returns home from the hospital with Abdul, her mother explodes, because what Precious revealed to Ms. Weiss has messed up her mother's benefits. A violent confrontation ensues, and Precious must turn to Blu Rain for help.
Still, Precious later gets a literacy award from the Mayor's office, as well as a "check for progress." There is a party at school to celebrate. John comes and gives Precious another card. She asks if there's more money in there; straight-faced, he asks why she's so "greedy." John expresses interest in a woman at the party, and Precious tries to help him out.
Most of those who see Precious are likely to slide right past John's brief statement that he is a "nurse's aide" and consider him to be a nurse. We suspect that few people know the difference, and the film itself obscures it, since John and the other characters call him a "nurse," and of course he goes by "Nurse John" (that is also how the character is listed in the credits). Not surprisingly, many of the reviews and other media about the film refer to John as a "nurse."
The results of this distortion are mixed. To the extent viewers believe John is a nurse, the character defies stereotypes in a helpful way. In Hollywood, straight men in nursing are often portrayed as less than assertive, reinforcing the idea that no "real man" would become a nurse. It's no accident that nursing remains more than 90 percent female. There have been commendable portrayals of strong, expert gay men in nursing, such as Belize in HBO's Angels in America and Mo-Mo in Showtime's Nurse Jackie. And there have been positive elements in portrayals of straight male nurses, ranging from Gaylord Focker of the Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers films to Dell Parker of ABC's Private Practice, but these characters have not been portrayed as authoritative health experts, as physicians generally are. Other portrayals could be seen as trying a little too hard to show that men in nursing are traditionally "macho," perhaps by making sure we know they can wrestle troublesome guys to the ground, as with the Tuck Brody character on CBS's 2010 show Miami Medical or the 2006-2007 depiction of Ben Parker on NBC's ER.
"Nurse John" mostly avoids these pitfalls. The character is assured, but gentle and compassionate. He has some health knowledge and he seems to feel obliged to share it with Precious, based on his comments about diet, which are, after all, patient advocacy. And John is an attractive straight man, which the movie is not afraid to stress. Yet the film doesn't really go out of its way to make him traditionally "macho" either; he doesn't have to be an action hero. He handles the students' romantic and sexual overtures in a low-key, appropriate way. Some might object to his description of himself as a "male nurse," a term that may imply some difference from other nurses, but he only uses the term once the students have already raised the male nurse stereotype. Saying "man in nursing" at that point would be awkward. Presumably his character is also there partly to balance Precious's horrific father, but John is not unrealistically positive. He seems a little stern, though he does have some sense of humor, and he is not afraid to express his emotions (a greeting card? signed with "love"?). He may also have gone a little over the line with the kiss on Precious's forehead, and it's not clear how helpful his initial advice that she "stop screaming" was. But he's a strong, sensitive man who really cares about people.
The problem is that "Nurse John" is not a nurse at all, and this actually does matter. Nurses' aides generally have no more than about six weeks of training, and when the public is encouraged to think of them as "nurses," it suggests that you don't really need much health training to be a registered nurse. If that is the case, then why do nurses need significant resources for education, research, or clinical practice? When people think that everyone they see in the clinical setting is a "nurse"--a belief that is encouraged by the tendency of many different care givers today to wear similar scrubs--then patients and families may well assume that the knowledge and skills required for nursing are minimal. And under this mistaken view, nursing certainly would not be a career choice for anyone with serious academic talent or advanced professional aspirations. Actually, though we doubt John could be seen as trying to impress anyone by calling himself a nurse here, it is not unheard of for unlicensed assistive hospital staff to lead others to believe they are nurses in order to enhance their perceived status at work (as odd as that might seem in light of the disparity in status between nurses and physicians).
"Nurse John" may know enough to counsel Precious in a general way about her diet, which is great, but could he detect a subtle change in her condition, or the baby's condition, and respond appropriately? Could he explain the techniques and the benefits of breastfeeding? (We do see Precious breastfeed baby Abdul briefly, which is commendable.) This lack of nursing knowledge and skill could also have direct health effects on the patients. That's why John's references to himself as a "nurse" might even implicate New York State's protected title statute. Unlike, say, naughty "nurse" waitresses, patients really might think someone like John is a "nurse."
It's also a little odd that the only care giver in the hospital who really interacts with Precious is John. Do the movie makers think a nurse's aide could manage patients like Precious and Abdul by himself? Denursification in U.S. clinical settings is a major problem, but we're not aware that it's gotten quite to the point that nurse's aides handle such patients alone. On the other hand, at least the movie doesn't have a physician do the nursing, which is common in fictional portrayals.
John certainly has something of the holistic perspective of nursing: He wants to help Precious and her baby achieve and maintain health, and he sees the influence of things like diet, the support of those who care, and of course, financial resources. Now he just needs that nursing degree, which means something like three years of college-level health science courses.
John can do it. He just needs to push himself!
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Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed May 30, 2010
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.