By R. Kurt Osenlund
Lee Daniels is one of those fascinating creative types who are so passionate about their work, they stumble over their sentences when trying to describe it, as if the proper adjectives simply don't exist. On a late October morning, during a roundtable discussion at Philadelphia's Palomar Hotel, the renegade filmmaker pauses frequently and flutters off on earnest tangents while discussing Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, his gritty but graceful urban drama, which closed out the 18 ½ Philadelphia Film Festival (PFF) the night before and is now playing nationwide.
The breaks in Daniels's speech may well be a result of mild interview fatigue, as he's basically been doing press for Precious ever since it exploded onto the scene at January's Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for drama, and kick-started a wave of rapturous buzz that's arguably unmatched by any other film this year. Or, perhaps he's still awash in the afterglow of PFF's closing night party, where he admits he did quite a lot of celebrating. Whatever the reason, Daniels doesn't need to say much to express his enthusiasm for his beloved new movie, and when he does find the words, he ardently articulates what every film enthusiast who's been paying attention over the last 11 months already knows: Precious is a project that has truly changed its director's life.
Lee Daniels. (Photo by Renaud Corlouer.)
Adapted by first-time screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher from New York-based author Sapphire's award-winning 1996 novel, Precious is no easy tale. Set in 1987 Harlem and focusing on Claireece “Precious” Jones, an obese, illiterate, 16-year-old African-American girl who makes Job look blessed by comparison, it deals with rape, incest, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and unfathomable domestic abuse. In other words, it's not the kind of movie Hollywood execs are dying to greenlight.
But Daniels has never been one to color inside the lines or adhere to conventions. As an independent producer, he's championed films like Monster's Ball (2001), a turbulent death row drama that won an Oscar for lead actress Halle Berry and made Daniels the first sole African-American producer of an Academy Award-winning movie, and The Woodsman (2004), an equally hard-hitting picture set and shot in Philadelphia and starring Kevin Bacon as a convicted child molester. As director, Daniels's one prior credit is Shadowboxer (2005), an underrated thriller that also takes place in Philadelphia and stars Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. as lovers and contract killers.
“When I make a movie, I make it for me,” says Daniels, 49. “I can't worry about what other people think. I have to think about what I want to see...which is not often what America wants to see and not oftentimes politically correct. It's not that I don't care for the audience – I do care for the audience – but I have to...I have to...tell what's in my soul, and the truth as I know it to be.”
Daniels says he first came across Sapphire's Push many years ago, when it was given to him by an agent in New York.
“I stayed with the book and the book stayed with me,” he says. “It stuck to me like hot grits. It was really one of those things that just...left me gasping. I was gasping...with my mouth open. Every other page was like, 'What the f—k did I just read!?' And I wanted to see it on the screen. I knew that it would translate well to the screen.”
Daniels made it a personal mission to carry out that translation, aggressively seeking the rights to Push even before he made Monster's Ball. According to the production notes for Precious, Sapphire had long been extremely protective of her debut novel, and turned down countless offers to adapt it – including, initially, an offer from Daniels. But after eventually seeing his work, Sapphire was impressed by Daniels's penchant for risk-taking, and finally agreed to trust him with her baby. Daniels developed the project through his own company, Lee Daniels Entertainment, an outgrowth of his earlier days in talent management. (He later gained additional financial support from Smokewood Entertainment, a fellow independent company that would also collaborate with him on the production of Tennessee, a road movie released earlier this year.)
Gabourey Sidibe and Paula Patton in a scene from Precious.
Precious was completed and acquired by U.S. distributor Lionsgate before it caught the eyes and hearts of media giants Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who got wind of the film around the time of its Sundance triumph. Both have since signed on as executive producers, and have helped to thrust Precious into the public consciousness.
“Normally, my movies have a specific cult following,” Daniels says. “With Oprah and Tyler, they said, 'Uh-uh, not on this one. We're going to try to ring the bell.' And they have...they've been very supportive.”
The whirlwind of hype and publicity surrounding Precious is filled with talk of the film's harrowing emotional content, but one thing it doesn't prepare you for is the amount of unique and imaginative visual texture embedded in the movie. Daniels gives Precious a stamp of stylistic distinction, particularly with scenes that illustrate his heroine's fantasies, which she uses for solace when things get extra rough. I ask Daniels about his own escapism, and if he needed similar fantasies while growing up in West Philadelphia. He offers an answer that is at once cryptic and revealing.
“I did,” Daniels says. “I didn't have a rosy childhood. Some...not so nice things happened. I think my fantasies made me a better person because if I had stayed in my world...in the moment...and if I didn't escape...I don't know how I would've ended up. And the movie delves into that. When (Precious is) able to heal, she no longer needs her fantasies because she's embraced herself. That's when we know we don't need fantasies any more...when we're okay with who we are.”
In a similar vein, I ask about another visual flourish: the orange scarf that Precious is almost never seen without, and that she eventually passes on to another young girl who's also suffering from abuse.
“It's a symbol of hope,” Daniels says of the accessory, which didn't appear in the novel. As the director continues and reiterates the importance of self-acceptance, he gets emotional. “(Precious) eventually doesn't need (the scarf), just like her fantasies. Once she looks in the mirror, and she doesn't see someone else but sees herself, in her full...whatever it is that she is, it's just...[he chokes up]...it's a really good thing.”
Lee Daniels (left) directs Gabourey Sidibe (center) and Xosha Roquemore on the set of Precious. (Photo by Anne Marie Fox.)
In regard to what he hopes viewers will take away from Precious, Daniels says the willingness to love and appreciate oneself and others is certainly high on the list. But he also says he hopes people will leave his film being able to better embrace homosexuality, a statement that is at first a bit jarring, seeing as homosexuality, while addressed, is hardly a chief component of the Precious narrative. But as he elaborates on the movie's implicit theme of tolerance, Daniels, openly gay himself, affirms that, for him, Precious is deeply personal indeed.
“I'm a black, gay filmmaker,” Daniels says. “Because I'm African-American, (Precious) has a black sensibility, and I told the story, originally, for a black audience. And it has a gay sensibility under it all...as its through-line. But I think...I think it's a universal story. It goes beyond sex, race and culture. It's a story for everyone.”
The universal accessibility of Precious, along with its multiple film fest prizes, glowing reviews and impressive initial box-office take (it banked $1.9 million on its opening weekend while still only playing on 18 screens), has contributed to its current stance as an indisputable Oscar front-runner. A nomination for Best Picture seems like a sure thing, as do nods for lead actress Gabourey Sidibe (who shows great instincts in a remarkable, transformative debut performance), supporting actress Mo'Nique (who's astounding as Precious's monster of a mother), and, yes, for Daniels. The superstitious director, however, doesn't want to hear anything about the awards buzz. When the topic comes up, he plugs his ears with his fingers and hums a tune to drown out the sound.
Besides, Daniels does seem to genuinely be a filmmaker for whom the creative process is more rewarding than any subsequent accolades. He confirms as much in his next statement, and this he says without a hint of hesitation: “I don't look at my films the way the audience looks at my films. They look at the final product, at what's up on the screen. I look at each film as a personal growth as a man, and focus on what I can learn from it and how it can make me a better human being. It's all part of my journey.”
*This article was published in the December 2009 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.