The BIG Story: Is Mo’Nique’s Performance in Precious Oscar-Worthy?

The buzz around Mo’Nique’s portrayal of Mary, an abusive single parent in Precious, is building. VIBE’s Linda Hobbs finds out what the chatter is about Mary is sitting, Al Bundy-style, in a worn-out recliner on a cool Harlem night. Her forehead is creased. The day hasn’t been going well. Her welfare check could be in jeopardy. And her 16-year-old daughter Precious’ interest in going to alternative school for her GED, has been getting on her nerves. Precious’ principal, the “white bitch,” rang her buzzer too many times in the middle of the night. The rage is building. In Mary’s world, small insults are capital offenses. Dressed in a crush velvet pants suit, and satin scarf over carefully-lined cornrows, she leaps up, and glares at her clammed up seed who’s standing motionless at the top of a flight of stairs. Mary’s voice quivers. “Precious?” she says, thighs rubbing together as she wobbles closer to the staircase. “Get down here bitch!” She flings a skillet at her. Precious ducks and kicks the pan down a step. With the force of Ray Lewis in his prime, Mary races up the stairs. The target is her own flesh and blood.

The moment is surreal. The type that leaves cokes suspended in the middle of straws, and popcorn frozen in-between pinched, buttery fingers. Mary, played by the overweight loving jokester Mo’Nique, is terrifying as hell. Like O-Dog at that Korean grocery store in the first 15 minutes of Menace II Society, or Bishop when he wigged out and shot Raheem in Juice. For the past year, Precious has been getting a lot of Hollywood Oscar talk. Directed and produced by Oscar-winning director Lee Daniels (the eccentric visionary behind 2001’s Monster’s Ball, another scattered tearjerker), and financially backed by Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, Precious is colorfully based on the 1996 Sapphire novel PUSH, a story about a HIV-positive Harlem girl raped by her father, and tormented by her mother. Though the film took several years to make (casting reportedly begin in 2003), it made plenty of noise after it hit Main Street. The movie, which co-stars Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, and a makeup-free Mariah Carey, clobbered up the Grand Jury Prize for best drama at Sundance, and attracted endless gushes from early viewers. Before the movie even started, the film’s 26-year-old Bedstuy, Brooklyn-born breakout star, Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, was admittedly most excited about working with Mo’Nique. “[Mo’Nique] really, really helped me to be comfortable in my own body, and my own mirror too,” Gabby told VIBE in late June. “I, like, model myself after Monique.” She wasn’t the only one with the praise. The comedian turned talk show host took home Sundance’ coveted Special Jury Prize. One reviewer simply wrote: “Mo’Nique will scare the shit out of you in Precious.” Translation: Could this chick win an Oscar? Historically, the golden statues are handed freely to the “crazies”: actors who pretended they could strip off the tinsel town facade, and give their inner-psycho a little screen-time, without being considered crazy for real…only to find out they were right. It’s so easy. They zap our sympathy, our fear, our inner-abuser, inner wounds, with fleeting cinematic moments resulting in brief paralysis and irregular heartbeats in packed theaters. Remember Edward Norton in Primal Fear? Denzel in Training Day? Or Queen Latifah in Set It Off, who didn’t get nominated for an Oscar, but should’ve? Somehow, Mo’Nique conjures several epic performances like these when one considers how powerfully Mary is pulled off. Mary’s story is familiar: Women who hurt so bad for love they beat their kids silly and turn around to spit flames at the society that allegedly robbed them of their femininity. When society has the nerve to tell them about themselves, the women burst into tears and talk about exes, some “shit that’s fucked up,” and being judged by folks who got a little bit of money in they pocket. Certainly one (particularly if you’re from the hood) can relate to crossing paths with a Mary on any given block on any given day. She barely smiles. Mo’Nique, who’s paid well to make the world laugh, made many viewers cringe as she parlayed the role as the film’s overweight lonely antagonist who never seemed to go away. When she was offered the role, Daniels called and told her, “This could fuck up your career.” She signed up for it anyway (the role was originally offered to Gabby’s biological mother, who turned it down out of fear of being misjudged in real life). In spite of Mo’Nique’s zeal, Mary was spotty at times, seemingly always pissed without the typical traits of coos and curses normally seen in abusers’ vainglorious behavior. She struts around with hairy armpits in a floral one piece and demand her pig feet be cooked right. Her only release comes while slid underneath the covers, as she presses her pudgy fingers between her thighs. On the surface, a lunatic like Mary screams Oscar! But could Mo’Nique really be the next Halle? One can’t be so sure. The film, which lacks a clear plot, suffering endlessly from lots of climaxes and no discernable storyline, leaves one unsatified. But nevertheless, the peaks of Mo’Nique’s courageous portrayal alone is enough to squeeze a nod, or at least more chatter of a nod, from the Academy this coming March. Though she was over-the-top mad (the near death-knell of her own performance), she played mad well. Hopefully she won’t experience a buzz kill due to the movie’s shortcomings. –Linda Hobbs