Lee Daniels, director of ‘Precious’
For director Lee Daniels, who informed “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” -- an unsparing look at an urban, pregnant teen coping with horrific abuse -- with a lifetime of his own experiences, hearing trash talk about the film at a local black barbershop was eye-opening. And anger-inducing.
“You’ve got to keep in mind, as a gay African American man, you’re going into testosterone city where they’re talking about everything,” he says. “So this one guy’s in a chair at the end of the shop, he says, ‘Did you see that movie “Precious”? I got my bootleg copy. And I don’t know how they was depicting African Americans.’
“I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ Because this is not Hollywood. This is not a Q&A. This is the real deal. There was a swelling sort of argument. A quarter were on his side, and then three-quarters were not. But I’m getting angry.”
He gets worked up even now, in an empty Malibu cinema while his film screens next door, relating how he got out of his chair, sweating, identifying himself and calling out his fellow patrons for criticizing the looks of his actresses and watching bootlegs rather than supporting black filmmakers: “ ‘You probably have a mother, a sister, a cousin, a friend; you’re probably having sex with someone who looks like Precious. How dare you say that you want to see some skinny ta-ta with a weave and shakin’ her thing as opposed to the truth. What you’re basically saying is you’d like to see a white girl starring in the movie, or some version of what Hollywood thinks is fabulous. Sorry. No. Precious is fabulous.’ So it got to be this really deep debate about telling the truth.
“It was the first time I realized that . . . it’s an issue. I guess when you tell the truth, it causes people to talk.”
Daniels is passionate in describing his quest to convey his “truth.” With “Precious,” it began with a visceral response to Sapphire’s novel.
“It was just in me. I knew every beat of the book, the soul of the girl, the soul of the mother. From the fabric on the wall in the living room to the couch that Precious sat on was an intimate sort of snapshot of the inside of my head, growing up,” he says.
That self-assurance is evident in Daniels’ casting choices. Apart from comedian Mo’Nique for the abusive mother and music stars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz for low-key roles, he selected 26-year-old acting novice Gabourey Sidibe as the title character.
“I knew the minute she came into the office,” he says. “She came with a ball of sunshine, a ball of light, of love, of happiness. I just started giggling. She makes me giggle without saying anything. I knew. After 400 girls, by the way.”
“Well, I don’t know that I knew,” says Sidibe, who has joined the conversation for a minute. “But I knew that he knew, and I just trusted him.”
Perhaps further infuriating “Precious’ ” critics (one prominent writer called it a “sociological horror show . . . offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity”) while lending insight to admirers (another prominent writer called it “the most painful, poetic and improbably beautiful film of the year”), Daniels stresses that his approach was fueled by not taking such dark material too seriously.
“It would have been very over-dramatic. I felt I had to laugh through the pain in telling this story,” he says. “That was a trap, if I had gone into a place of ‘How sad for her.’ Them girls in that classroom, they ain’t sad for her. Precious ain’t sad for herself. We’re laughing sometimes. And that saves, I feel, the tragedy of it all.”
“It’s like he’s doing math in every scene,” says Sidibe of Daniels’ directorial technique. “If you’ve ever seen that show ‘Monk,’ it’s almost like that. He’s pointing at things that you can’t see and adding numbers in a weird way. We really did have so much fun on the set. I certainly didn’t know what I was doing. But I didn’t need to. I was so unconcerned; all I really had to do was listen to him. The subject matter of the film, it is what it is. But I had the best time. I’ve never been so stress-free as when I was on set.”
Despite the production’s “party"-like vibe, the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from what he sees as hard truths.
“That’s what cinema’s about, ultimately. My mother told me, ‘Don’t hire Sam Jackson’ ” for the lead Kevin Bacon eventually played in “The Woodsman,” which he produced. “ ‘You make a black man a pedophile, don’t come in my house.’ That’s what she told me.
“So I think, oftentimes, we’re on a pedestal. We see Obama, we aspire to be Obama. And we have to forget the world we came from, and we don’t want to show that world. It’s a painful world. But I’ve got to learn from it. People have got to aspire and look up to Precious and grow from Precious, and girls do.”