Why everyone's talking about 'Precious'
Director Lee Daniels fights back the tears to tell Dave Calhoun how he ‘married art into an urban world’
Lee Daniels, the director of ‘Precious’, strides on to the stage at the Everyman Screen on the Green in Islington, suited and booted, with a red, polka-dot hankie poking out of his breast pocket, takes a long, hard look at the audience who have been watching his film, takes a deep breath and declares, ‘It’s great to see so many white faces out there!’
The audience laughs, maybe a little nervously. The hundred or so folk in the room have just been served a 100-minute portion of African-American urban hell with a liberal sprinkling of hope and redemption to ease their digestion of the story of Precious, a character first imagined in the 1996 novel ‘Push’ by the writer Sapphire. Precious is a 16-year-old, obese, black teenager in Harlem – terrifically played by Gabourey Sidibe – who bears two children by her father, is abused by her vile mother and doesn’t know from one day to the next what horrors are lurking round the corner. It takes a new school, a committed social worker (played by Mariah Carey) and a whole lot of willpower for her even to begin to create a new life for herself. It’s tough, it’s grim and it’s very moving.
The week before the director arrives in London, 50-year-old Daniels speaks to me on the phone from New York, where he lives with his two children. He’s an extraordinary character, personally and professionally. He’s gay, yet he adopted his brother’s twins – one girl, one boy – 13 years ago when they were new babies and his brother was about to go to jail and they now live with him in a city apartment. He grew up on the tough streets of Philadelphia in the 1960s and ’70s and says much of ‘Precious’ mirrors his own life. On stage in Islington, he tells the audience: ‘Precious is me.’
He says he’s already preparing his next film, ‘Selma’, which will tell of Martin Luther King and a historic 1965 civil-rights march in Alabama. ‘You know, life goes on,’ he says, bursting into a typical shriek of laughter. The past year has been an extraordinary ride for him. ‘Crazy, crazy,’ he says. He took ‘Precious’ to Sundance last January thinking that he had a film that would resonate with a black audience. He left with audience and jury awards. Since then, the film has screened at Cannes, won the audience award at Toronto, made more than $40 million at the US box office (it cost around $10 million to make) and been nominated for or won countless awards. On the day he hosts the Islington screening he discovers the film has been nominated for four Baftas, including Best Supporting Actress for Mo’Nique, the comedian who plays Precious’s sick gargoyle of a mother and who it’s widely assumed will win the same award at the Oscars in March.
‘I was on the phone with Mo’Nique this morning and I was like, “Bitch, you got fucking so many awards, where you gonna put them, man?”’ He’s cackling with laughter again. ‘We just sat there and reminisced how we were running from the law to make the movie. Yeah, we had two cents to make the movie and all we had was a dream…’
He gulps. I think he’s crying now, which isn’t a surprise: I’ve read of him shedding tears during interviews and someone who works with him tells me he once had him weeping on his shoulder. Daniels is an extrovert, loud, emotional, lay-it-on-the-line guy, who says he always wants his actors to know everything about him. ‘They got to learn about me, what’s in my head. They got to know about my drug past, what my sex life is like, my abuse as a child, being put in the fucking trash can by my dad when I was five. It’s therapeutic for me, selfishly, and I know that it melts them down so they feel free and trusting.’
‘Precious’ is Daniels’s second film as a director. His first, ‘Shadowboxer’ (2006), was a flop, but he knew success already as the producer of ‘Monster’s Ball’ (2002) and ‘The Woodsman’ (2005), both of which showed his taste for dealing with unlikeable characters and his knack at getting those characters into cinemas. ‘Monster’s Ball’ won Halle Berry an Oscar; ‘The Woodsman’ starred Kevin Bacon as a paedophile and Mos Def as a cop, and was a festival hit.
He says that when filming ‘Precious’ he thought he was making a movie for African-Americans. ‘I did this movie to marry art into an urban world,’ he explains, meaning that he wanted to give black audiences a serious story about themselves that didn’t shy away from the truth. ‘African-Americans don’t get a chance to see art films. They get to see a different type of thing that the studio spits out that are really, like, ha-ha-ha, make-me-laugh type of stuff. Or stuff that doesn’t represent our culture, or a large part of our culture.’
He only realised ‘Precious’ wasn’t going straight to DVD – where it would reach his assumed audience – when a Chinese woman approached him on the street the day after the film’s screening at Sundance. ‘She just started sobbing in my arms. It’s happened so many times since.’ He says that non-black audiences react differently to the film. ‘At Sundance, it was an all-white audience and they were afraid to laugh. They felt it was inappropriate. The type of response was just as powerful, but in a white man’s way.’
‘I tested this movie at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem before Sundance. I sat there in the audience and it was like someone took a hit of crack. It was verbal, it was people running out of the theatre, crying, screaming, hollering. It was like we were in church. But I didn’t think this film was going to touch white America. The joke was on me.’
Author: Dave Calhoun
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