RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Oprah Winfrey is just one of the African-American luminaries lining up behind a new movie that's both harsh and hauntingly beautiful. "Precious" is about a teenage girl in Harlem who's obese, illiterate, and horribly abused. It's based on a 1996 best-selling novel called "Push." Director Lee Daniels' adaptation has already won major awards at film festivals. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this story, which be warned, contains adult themes.
NEDA ULABY: Lee Daniels is having a moment.
(Soundbite of laughing)
Daniels is sprawling on a creamy sofa in a plush suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. His movie, "Precious" is about to take the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. It's the second film he's ever directed. Then Oprah Winfrey sweeps in.
Mr. LEE DANIELS (Film Director): It's gorgeous, gor-ge-lous.
Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Talk Show Host): You've changed again?
ULABY: Winfrey, resplendent in a purple tunic, has hitched her solid gold media wagon to this tiny but powerful movie.
Ms. WINFREY: I'd never seen anything like that. It was guttural. It was primal. It felt like, wow, that hit a nerve.
ULABY: The main character in "Precious" escapes from her hellish existence through a convoluted fantasy life.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
Ms. GABOUREY SIDIBE (Actress): (As Precious Jones) My name is Claireece Precious Jones and I want to be on the cover of a magazine.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. SIDIBE: I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with real nice hair. So first I want to be on one of them BET videos.
ULABY: These superficial adolescent dreams are more important and complicated than you might expect. They work as her refuge while Precious is being abused.
MO'NIQUE (Actress): (As Mary) You're a dummy. Don't nobody want you. Don't nobody need you.
ULABY: 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. She denies it to her daughter's social worker.
MO'NIQUE: (As Mary) I don't want you to sit there and judge me, Ms. Weiss.
Ms. MARIAH CAREY (Actress/Singer): (As Ms. Weiss) You shut up and you let him abuse your daughter.
MO'NIQUE: (As Mary) I did not want him to abuse my daughter. I didn't want him to hurt her.
Ms. CAREY: (As Ms. WEISS) But you allowed him to hurt her.
MO'NIQUE: I did not what him to do nothing to her. So those things that she told you that I did to her, who else was going to love me? Hm? Who was going to make me feel good?
Mr. DANIELS: I'm a little nervous about white people seeing the world, because I feel like it's a snapshot into something maybe that you shouldn't even - this is mine. This is my world.
ULABY: Director Lee Daniels knew families like that one growing up in West Philadelphia.
Mr. DANIELS: When I was 11, there was a little girl that came to my home at 3 in the afternoon, we just got out of school - this little girl I grew up with - she was naked. She came to my front door. She said, my mommy beat me and my mom's going to kill me. And I'll never forget the feeling that it had in me.
ULABY: Daniels discovered that feeling made eloquent when he read the novel "Push" by Sapphire. He resolved to adapt it as a movie that expressed the book's vivid energy and its explicitly gay characters.
Mr. DANIELS: Because in my culture, homosexuality is really looked down on, and I really wanted to surprise people.
ULABY: The teen-aged protagonist is not gay, but the teacher who transforms her life is.
Mr. DANIELS: This hero, she's a lesbian, and I knew that that would upset a lot of people that were African-American that look down on lesbianism.
ULABY: Over the past 20 years, Daniels has slowly climbed up the Hollywood food chain - from production assistant to casting director to producer of "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."
Mr. DANIELS: C'mon, you know, who wants to finance a movie about a 300-pound black girl?
ULABY: It takes a certain perseverance, perhaps like Tyler Perry's. If Oprah Winfrey is Queen of All Media, Perry is its Do-It-Yourself King. Far off the Hollywood grid, Perry produces, writes, directs, and stars in boisterous lowbrow comedies that have earned more than $400 million worldwide. They include "I Can Do Bad All By Myself" and "Madea's Family Reunion."
Unidentified Woman (Actress): It's so good to see the whole family together. Thank you, Madea.
Mr. TYLER PERRY (Actor): (As Madea) I tried. I used my pistol for some of them, 'cause that's all they understood.
ULABY: But Tyler Perry wants to take his hyper-success making movies for a mostly black female audience in a more serious direction. He says he picked this film as a start because he identified with Precious.
Mr. PERRY: Well for me, you know, my mother was my protector growing up, 'cause I was in a house like the one of Precious.
ULABY: Perry's mother shielded him from his abusive father's violence. He says that's why now he often tells women's stories.
Mr. PERRY: She would take me everywhere with her to protect me, so I went to hair salons, and I went to Lane Bryant, and I listened to all these women, you know, a little boy listening to all of this, I soaked up everything.
ULABY: Perry signed up as executive producer of "Precious" after seeing a rough cut of the film. Then he got Winfrey to sign up too. But director Lee Daniels had already cast a number of his famous friends, who showed up in Toronto to support the film.
Mariah Carey squeezes her way through a crowded Four Seasons hallway. She plays a tough, dowdy social worker in "Precious." The movie also features Lenny Kravitz as a nurse and Sherri Shepherd from "The View." Mary J. Blige wrote a song for the film. The likeable comedian Mo'Nique shed her glamorous image to play the gut-wrenching monster of a mother.
MO'NIQUE: (As Mary) Precious, you're going to stand up there and look down at me like you're a woman? You don't know what real women do. Real women sacrifice. Now smile about that, you fat (bleep)...
(Soundbite of music)
ULABY: When Oprah Winfrey saw the movie for the first time, she called Mo'Nique immediately, didn't say hello, just asked one question.
Ms. WINFREY: Who's your favorite designer? Get your dress ready, girl. Get your dress ready to walk that red carpet because that's an Oscar-winning performance if I ever saw one.
ULABY: But even for Oprah, it's a challenge to market a film with such unsparing themes. "Precious" comes out in theaters in November. Winfrey wants the film to bridge the art house crowd with the so-called urban audiences that adore Tyler Perry. But Winfrey expects all of them, like her, to leave the theater with new eyes.
Ms. WINFREY: How many times have I seen and not seen the Preciouses of the world? 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?
ULABY: Girls like Precious are easy to ignore, says Oprah Winfrey, even to despise. But this movie makes you recognize how perfectly this Precious is named.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
(Soundbite of music)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.