Anne Marie Fox/Lionsgate Films
Gabourey Sidibe stars as Claireece "Precious" Jones in Lee Daniels' film. Chosen from among 500 contenders, the first-time actor "was a psych student and a receptionist the day before the audition," as she told the CBC.
Gabourey Sidibe stars as Claireece "Precious" Jones in Lee Daniels' film. Chosen from among 500 contenders, the first-time actor "was a psych student and a receptionist the day before the audition," as she told the CBC. Anne Marie Fox/Lionsgate Films
Director Lee Daniels is having a moment.
He's sprawled on a creamy sofa in the gentle light of an upper-floor suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Toronto. The second movie he's ever directed, Precious, is about to win the top award at the city's prestigious international film festival. (The film swept up awards at Sundance and Cannes, as well.)
Precious tells the unsparing story of a teenage girl in Harlem who's obese, illiterate and horribly abused. It's based on a best-selling 1996 novel called Push, by the poet Sapphire. Daniels' adaptation is both harsh and hauntingly beautiful. A galaxy of African-American stars is lining up to support the film, including the Queen of All Media herself, Oprah Winfrey.
Resplendent in a purple tunic, she collapses on the couch next to Daniels and describes seeing Precious for the first time.
"I had never seen anything like that," she says. "It was guttural. It was primal. It was — wow. That hit a nerve."
Precious comes out in November. The trailer gives a glimpse of Precious' convoluted fantasy life. She imagines herself a star, a BET dancer, a model with a light-skinned boyfriend, a white girl. These superficial dreams are more important and complicated than you might expect. They function as a refuge while Precious is being abused.
The villain in Precious is the girl's terrifying mother, a mean-eyed creature so slovenly you can practically smell her. She's complicit when Precious is raped by her father — repeatedly. And the mother abuses Precious, too, emotionally, physically and sexually.
"I'm a little nervous about white people seeing this world," Daniels says. "Because — this is mine. This is my world."
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Growing up in West Philadelphia, Daniels knew families like the one in Precious. In particular, he remembers a little girl — a schoolmate — showing up at his home, naked and bleeding.
"She said, 'My mommy beat me, and my mom's going to kill me,' " Daniels recalls. "And I'll never forget the feeling."
Daniels discovered that feeling made eloquent when he read Sapphire's novel. He resolved to adapt it as a movie that expressed the book's vivid energy— and its emphatically queer characters, especially the dedicated teacher who transforms Precious' life.
"In my culture, homosexuality is looked down upon," he says. "This hero, she's a lesbian, and I knew that would upset a lot of [African-Americans] that look down on lesbianism."
Over the past 20 years, Daniels has climbed up the Hollywood food chain — from production assistant to casting director to producer of the 2001 film Monster's Ball, which scored the first Academy Award for a black leading actress. Still, he was forced to cash in all his chips to raise $3 million to film Precious.
"C'mon," he scoffs in answer to a reporter's question. "Who wants to finance a movie about a 300-pound black girl?"
It does require the perseverance of a Tyler Perry. If Oprah is the Queen of All Media, Perry is its Do-It-Yourself King. Far off the Hollywood grid, at his massive studio in Atlanta, Perry produces, writes, directs and stars in boisterous lowbrow comedies — including Madea's Family Reunion and the recently released I Can Do Bad All By Myself — that have earned more than $400 million worldwide.
But Perry wants to take his success making movies for a predominantly black female audience in a more serious direction. He picked Precious as a start because he identified with the main character.
"I was in a house like the one in Precious," Perry says of his childhood. His mother had to shield him from his abusive father's violence. "She would take me everywhere to protect me, so I went to hair salons, and I went to Lane Bryant, and I would listen to all these women — you know, a little boy, listening. I soaked up everything."
Perry says that's why now he often tells women's stories. After seeing a rough cut of Precious, he immediately signed up as an executive producer. Then he got Winfrey to sign up, too.
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Anne Marie Fox/Lionsgate Films
Among the big-ticket names who signed on to make the movie version of Precious' story were the usually glamorous comedian Mo'Nique ...
Among the big-ticket names who signed on to make the movie version of Precious' story were the usually glamorous comedian Mo'Nique ... Anne Marie Fox/Lionsgate Films
... and singer-actress Mariah Carey (with Sidibe).
... and singer-actress Mariah Carey (with Sidibe). Lionsgate Films
Director Lee Daniels had already cast a number of his own famous friends — including Mariah Carey, who plays Precious' tough, dowdy social worker; Lenny Kravitz, as a nurse; and Sherri Shepherd of The View. Mary J. Blige wrote a song for the film. The immensely likable comedian Mo'Nique shed her plus-size glam-girl image to play the film's gut-wrenching monster of a mother.
Winfrey says she called Mo'Nique first thing after seeing the film. She didn't even bother to say hello.
"'Who's your favorite designer?'" she remembers asking. "'Get your dress ready, girl. Get your dress ready to walk that red carpet. 'Cause that's an Oscar-winning performance if I ever saw one.'"
But even for Oprah, it's a challenge to market a film with such unsparing themes. Winfrey wants the film to bridge the art house crowd with the so-called urban audiences who adore Tyler Perry. But Winfrey expects all of them, like her, to leave the theater with newly opened eyes.
"How many times have I seen and not seen the Preciouses of the world?" she muses. "How many times have I seen that girl on the street? How many times have I seen her on the corner of Michigan Avenue in Chicago, waiting on a bus? How many times have I seen that girl coming out of Walgreens? How many times have I seen her and not seen her?"
Girls like Precious are easy to ignore, says Winfrey — even to despise. But this movie makes you recognize how perfectly this Precious is named.