Lee Daniels’ ‘Precious’ Moment


Lee Daniels ex­udes con­fid­ence when talk­ing about his latest film, Pre­ciouswhich 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. ■

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