Lee Daniels exudes confidence when talking about his latest film, Precious, which finally hits Philly—after opening in select cities across the country last week—this Friday. It’s as if he knows this story about an obese, ugly, dark-skinned teenage girl from the ghetto—whose father repeatedly rapes her—is going to impact the lives of millions.
“That truly was my intention, to change how one perceives incest,” says Daniels. “We see Precious in Philly every day on the El, on the bus, 42nd Street to everywhere. She’s there. She’s with my cousins. She’s deep in my family. She’s everywhere, but we are ignoring her.”
The film is based on the 1996 urban literary legend Push, a novel by poet Sapphire. Back in the day when girls in the suburbs were reading Judy Blume books, around-the-way girls in the inner-city were passing around Push , a timeless depiction of life in the ghetto: poverty, child abuse, illiteracy, damaged souls … The adaptation closely parallels the powerful and heart-gripping story of main character Precious, played by newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, a 350-pound illiterate teenager who’s about to give birth to her second child by her father, all the while enduring verbal, physical and sexual abuse doled out by her mother Mary, played by actress, comedian and talk show host Mo’Nique.
It’s a story that Daniels, who has been open about the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father while growing up, says he had to tell.
“When I read it, it ripped me open. It ripped me raw,” he says. Daniels was given the book about 11 years ago by actress Ally Sheedy’s mother, a literary agent in New York City.
“It left me in a place where my guts were upside down. My mouth was open. Every other page was like, ‘Oh my God this isn’t happening. I’ve got to turn this into a movie.’”
It’s a beautifully warm Monday in October, a welcome treat considering the long rainy weekend Daniels spent promoting the film. As he makes his way inside the green room at CBS 3 TV, it’s clear the filmmaker—sporting a loosely buttoned beige shirt, blue jeans and brown leather shoes with the laces untied—is recovering from a long night.
“Networking and attending events is like working,” he says, feeling a little self-conscious about his disheveled appearance. The West Philly native gets comfortable on a black leather couch and immediately gushes about how fabulous Nona Hendryx of the legendary soul music group Labelle looks at age 65.
“She has the body of a 20-year-old,” he jokes of the songstress who has a song on the Precious soundtrack titled “Now That I Know Who I Am.”
Daniels sets the mood with laughter, but the conversation takes a deep turn as he discusses his journey to bring the story of Precious to the big screen, his toughest critic, and how it feels not to have the support of some African-Americans. He even reveals for the first time that he was sexually abused as a child. A revelation that offers further insight into the director’s penchant for creating dark films like Monster’s Ball , for which actress Halle Berry won an Oscar; The Woodsman , Shadowboxer and Tennessee . The provocative filmmaker tackles sensitive subject matters from interracial relationships and organized crime to pedophilia, child abuse and twisted estranged relationships.
The journey to get Push to the big screen was not an easy one. “It took a long time to get her to trust me to make the film,” says Daniels of Sapphire. The author had concerns that if the adaptation wasn’t done correctly it would change the way people perceived the book.
“During that time scenes were fermenting in my head because I knew I was going to stalk her down for this if it killed me.” Daniels says the scholar and poet is “a genius, but she’s got a little bit of hot sauce in her.”
“She’ll use a five-syllable word then bust out with the word ‘nigga,’” laughs Daniels as he fans himself.
The author finally embraced the idea. “Either that or she was tired of me stalking her,” says Daniels, and from there it was smooth sailing. “I had so many years to understand the story in its DNA.”
It’s the kind of DNA that is embedded in all of us, even
Daniels, who recently had to face a repressed childhood memory that forever connects him to Precious. “My therapist said, ‘Lee, your stories are so provocative, were you sexually abused?’ I go, ‘no.’ Then I go, ‘Well, you know I was 12 and this guy who was in his twenties tried something with me.’”
After his confession, Daniels says his therapist hit him with the news. “She said to me, ‘Lee, you were sexually abused.’ I was like ‘ whoa .’ That was abuse.
“That was last year and I’m almost 50 years old. I was like, ‘OK, put that on my checklist of things to do,’” he adds, breaking into a hearty laughter.
With Precious, Daniels does an excellent job of addressing the deep seeded “isms” that people may knowingly or unknowingly possess—a standard trait in his films. The edgy director utilizes the skillful art of “saying something without saying something.”
The film succeeds at making global connections, and in encouraging viewers to break away from the norm and see Precious as a universal story, not just a black story.
“I went around the world, Germany, France, and it [the film] just speaks to other people and cultures because there is a little bit of Precious in all of us. White Philadelphians and New Yorkers, I don’t consider to be white. They intermingle with us. They know a lot, so it’s really like the same thing. But, when white people in Oregon were responding to the film, it freaked me out because they don’t see Precious every day.”
With controversy comes intense criticism, and given his track record, it’s easy to see why Daniels has had his share of both. Some critics have dismissed Precious as being nothing more than poorsploitation (exploiting the story of what is perceived an urban issue). “Poorsploitation, what’s that mean?” asks Daniels, clearly tickled by the term used to describe his film in a recent PW review. “I don’t know how to respond to that because … it’s a universal story. I’m a black filmmaker so if that makes it poorsploitative because I’m black … then poorsploitation around the house !”
The novel and film both take place in Harlem with African-American characters, but ironically the novel Push was originally put up as a stage play in London with an all-white cast before Daniels came on board. He admits he wasn’t aware of the full scale of Precious ’ universal impact until he made the film.
“I told Sapphire, people are responding to this film around the world,” he says, with a trace of a Philly accent.
She said to me, “Lee, you know we put Precious up as a white play in London … Precious was white. Mary was white.”
African-American directors have long been criticized for how they portray blacks in film, and Daniels is no exception. Some members of the black community—and liberal whites—have made it clear they feel Precious makes black people look bad. Indeed, the film delves into some hard-to-take truths: Precious contracts HIV from her father, a reality that’s hard to hide.
“Black women are dying because everyone wants to pretend to have a certain image,” says Daniels, who visited a gay center in New York while researching the film. “Most of the AIDS patients in this country are black women,” says Daniels.
The director blames the disconnect between his critics and his work partly on the fact that some African-Americans don’t want to see the truth played out on the big screen. Nevertheless, he refuses to sugar-coat reality.
“For me to portray and not tell my truth and bring it to the screen would be an injustice to me as a man—forget about a black man, but as a man. I would be lying and black women are dying.” To that end, the filmmaker says, “Yeah, I got your image right here ,” making a hand gesture toward his crotch.
Daniels already proved he won’t work with those who don’t subscribe to his mission: He fired his last manager for not believing in the film.
Seeking more truths, Daniels also visited incest survivors, an experience he describes as chilling. “It actually gives me the creeps because they were children and they were innocent … I would have to kill somebody if they did that to my child,” says Daniels, who shares custody of his adopted 13-year-old twins, Clara and Liam—who were abandoned by Daniels’ brother as babies—with his ex-boyfriend Billy Hopkins.
Surprisingly, the director was most touched by Mo’Nique’s character, Mary, the monstrous mother.
“She is just the worst of the worst,” says Daniels. “I said to Mo’Nique, ‘I don’t want to feel sorry for you, but I want to understand you.’ Through that understanding and her performance I broke down. I started crying. I said ‘wait a minute, am I feeling sorry for her?’ I think I was just sorry for the whole situation because she was someone else’s child. She was a victim of the culture,” says Daniels. “You know the culture is really the system, and we feel strong about it in the film. The system is the ultimate culprit.”
Mo’Nique’s character brings to light another big issue, one that leaves kids like Precious subject to prey: When Precious was 3 years old, her mother decided to give her relationship with her boyfriend (Precious’ father) priority over her daughter’s well-being. Daniels stops to think about why women choose men over their children.
“What I suspect is that we all want love. I think that a true mother should put her child before anything. (His voice trails off, as if this question brings up a sensitive emotion in him.) Also it’s not just about love. I find myself really having to take a great balance because my work is so all consuming and I have two kids. They will be neglected because of my work, so it’s not just about lovers, it’s about work … It’s very hard to put food on the table and put them first.”
Speaking of maternal matters, Daniels’ mother is a huge Tyler Perry fan, and wishes her son would do movies like the Madea mogul.
“My mom would say, ‘Ms. Mabel down at the church, she’s like what’s wrong with you? What did I do to you? Why can’t you make movies like Tyler Perry?’”
I said to her, ‘I think we all have a voice.’” The filmmaker admits his mother directly impacts his movie decisions. “I was in talks with Samuel L. Jackson to play the pedophile in The Woodsman and I got so nervous because she said, ‘If you have a black man playing a pedophile don’t come back in this house!’” Needless to say, Jackson was not offered the role—which was played by another Philly native, Kevin Bacon. “It’s funny how your mother can have an affect on a movie,” laughs Daniels. Fortunately for Daniels his mother is very pleased with Precious , especially since Perry is involved with the project.
“I did this movie for African-Americans because my mother kept asking why I can’t make movies like Tyler. Now I go, ‘Mom, you like this movie?’ She goes, ‘Tyler Perry is producing it, hell yeah!’”
With his biggest critic on board, Daniels can sit back and digest the whirlwind that is Precious . The director initially thought that the film, originally titled Push —the title was already taken by Paul McGuigan’s film—would go straight to DVD. He couldn’t have anticipated the film’s mass attraction.
“When we got into Sundance I was like ‘whoa!’ When we won Sundance, I was like ‘what the fuck !’” All these white people were responding to my movie and I broke down in tears because you realize that this is not a black story. I’m a black filmmaker but this is not a black story,” he says.
“This Chinese lady came up and held my hand and started crying. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I still can’t deal with it because I made this film for my family and it becomes universal.”
By mainstream standards the movie is a word-of-mouth success, racking up its fair share of awards since debuting at Sundance last winter. Plus, for months the Oscar buzz has been circling over members of the cast: There’s Mo’Nique for her riveting portrayal of the teen’s mother, whose character Daniels describes as a “trifling cow,” Mariah Carey for her role as Precious’ welfare caseworker, and of course, Sidibe. Push took home top honors at Sundance: Special Jury Prize for Acting (presented to Mo’Nique), the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. While accepting his third award Daniels got the phone call that changed everything.
“I’m walking down and I’m winning my third award at Sundance. Someone is calling me from an unknown number.
“So who answers a phone when you’re winning an award?” Daniels asks in a rhetorical fashion. “I’ll tell you who—a broke filmmaker.” Being quite the comedian, he puts his hand to his ear reenacting the telephone call and imitating Oprah’s voice.
“Lee, its Oprah.”
“Heyyy! Oprah? Oprah Winfrey?”
“Yes, Oprah Winfrey.”
“I’m winning an award.”
“Well, why are you answering the phone?” she asks.
Lee recalls with laughter actually pausing after Oprah’s question to think about why he was answering the phone while winning an award.
“Call me back,” she says.
“I said, ‘I can’t. It’s an unknown number.’”
Oprah called back. The rest is history.
“She came into the picture because she had known of my work. What [Oprah’s endorsement] means to me is that I have two different demographics that ordinarily don’t see my films. Even though I’m African-American, I really speak to an art crowd. I know that and it saddens me,” Daniels says softly. It’s clear that the lack of support from African-Americans stings him.
Some African-Americans may not have related to the artsy nature of Daniels’ earlier films, but there is no question that Precious , with all the street-cred backing of the book Push , will bring him a new fan base. ■