Lee Daniels, director of Oscar-nominated Precious, talks to Time Out...
Lee Daniels, the director of Precious, strides on to the stage at the Screen on the Green cinema in north London, suited and booted, with a red polka-dot handkerchief poking out of his breast pocket, takes a long, hard look at the audience who have been watching his film, 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 1996 novel Push by Sapphire. Precious is an obese, black teenager in Harlem – terrifically played by Gabourey Sidibe – who bears two children by her father, is abused by her mother and doesn’t know from one day to the next what horrors are lurking around 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 he arrives in London, 50-year-old Daniels speaks to Time Out on the phone from New York. He’s an extraordinary character, personally and professionally. He grew up on the tough streets of Philadelphia in the ’60s and ’70s and says much of Precious mirrors his own life. On stage in London, he tells the audience: ‘Precious is me.’
The past year has been an extraordinary ride for him. ‘Crazy, crazy,’ he says. He took Precious to Sundance last January thinking 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, made more than US$40 million (Dhs146 million) at the US box office (it cost around Dhs36 million to make) and been nominated for or won countless awards, including a raft of Oscars.
‘I was on the phone with Mo’Nique [the comedian who plays Precious’s sick gargoyle of a mother, and who it’s widely assumed will win Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars this week] this morning and I was like, “B****, you got so many awards, where you gonna put them, man?”’ He’s cackling with laughter. ‘We just 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. We think he’s crying now, which isn’t a surprise: we’ve read about him shedding tears during interviews. Daniels is an extrovert, emotional, loud, lay-it-on-the-line guy, who says he 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, my abuse as a child. It’s therapeutic for me, selfishly, and I know that it melts them down so they feel free and trusting.’
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: ha-ha-ha, make-me-laugh-type 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.’
The reaction of African-American audiences to the film has been just as strong. ‘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.’ He was wrong. Precious is in UAE cinemas now.