Its critics accuse writer-director Lee Daniels' film of whipping up fear and loathing towards black Americans, and have questioned why Opray Winfrey and Tyler Perry jumped on its bandwagon.
Its proponents hail Precious as an inspirational tale about the power of kindness and caring.
The controversy virtually guaranteed the film would have a sizable opening in the US, but no one predicted it would break records. Launched last Friday in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago, the movie generated an unprecedented $1.8 million at just 18 cinemas. That's an extraordinary figure for the 1980s drama which centres on a 16-year-old Harlem girl, Claireece "Precious" Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe), who is pregnant with her second child after being raped by her father.
Stand-up comedian Mo'Nique plays the girl's monstrously abusive mother and Mariah Carey is a dowdy social worker. The plot follows a redemptive arc as the girl attends an "alternative school," where she starts communicating with her teacher (Paula Patton) and befriending other troubled women. Icon will release the film in Australia in February.
Based on the fictional 1996 novel Push by African-American poet Sapphire, the film won the grand jury prize and audience award at the Sundance festival in January. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry came on board as executive producers, although neither was involved in the production. Both vowed they would donate all their proceeds from the film to charity because of their own experiences with family abuse and dysfunction.
There have been extreme reactions from reviewers. “Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious,” fumed the New York Press' Armond White. “The spectacle warps how people perceive black American life – perhaps even replacing their instincts for compassion with fear and loathing.”
Slate's Dana Stevens opined that by “offering up their heroine's misery for the audience's delectation,” the filmmakers have “created something uncomfortably close to poverty porn.”
Among the fervent admirers, MTV found “Precious is one of those rare movies that come winging in from nowhere and knock you out,” Roger Ebert praised it as “a great American film,” and the Los Angeles Times waxed about a “rare blend of pure entertainment and dark social commentary.”
Lee Daniels produced Monster's Ball, the tough drama that earned actress Halle Berry her Oscar, followed by The Woodsman, the bleak story of a paedophile, starring Kevin Bacon. He made his directorial debut with the critically-reviled Shadowboxer, a killer-for-hire saga which paired Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren.
Incest is a recurring theme in his work – a subject he doesn't want to revisit.
“I won't be talking about this ever again. Enough. I have no idea what draws me to it,” he told Film Independent last month. “As Precious has found her light at the end of the tunnel so have I. This was a very healing film for me. I did it to deal with my demons and to change as a filmmaker. Every film I had done had been so dark. This was like a bridge from the darkness into the light.”