Lee Daniels, Centre With, L To R, some of the cast of Precious: Mariah Carey, Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique and Paula Patton. Photograph: Getty Images
The Surprise Diamond Of Hollywood
Precious, the story of an obese and abused black teenager, is the year's most reviled as well as praised film in America. But director Lee Daniels is used to trouble, he tells Gaby Wood. He grew up gay on the streets of Philadelphia, after all, and is drawn to the most disturbing truths. That'll be why he's heading to America's Deep South for his next film…
* The Observer, Sunday 6 December 2009
For the past month, one particular actress has filled American movie screens and visited American minds. She is obese and very dark-skinned, and the character she plays – a 16-year-old illiterate girl from Harlem who is abused by her mother and pregnant by her father for the second time – has been dealt one of the worst hands society has to offer. Yet what's most often said about Gabourey Sidibe – in this Aniston-adoring, holiday-spirited culture – is none of those things. It's that she is completely wonderful, and her Oscar nomination is in the bag.
Sidibe – a 26 year-old first-time actress – is the star of Precious. The film is both stunning and difficult, and has been met with awe and fury; it's already, in its first few weeks, the most talked-about movie of the year by a considerable margin. Some have accused its director, Lee Daniels (who produced 2001's Monster's Ball), of propagating negative images of African Americans, and suggested that making a "feelbad" movie about black people in the age of Obama is akin to taking several steps backwards. Armond White, chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, fumed: "Not since The Birth of a Nation [in 1915] has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés… it is a sociological horror show." Others have argued that this is a narrow view, that we're beyond the point where it's The Cosby Show or nothing – or simply that the film should be appreciated for its aesthetic merits. What's more, feelgood people don't always have feelgood experiences. Tyler Perry, who has become one of the most successful African Americans in Hollywood by making movies at the opposite end of the grimness spectrum, signed on as executive producer after Precious was finished, and made it known that he too had been beaten by his father.
Daniels's response to this, offered in a tone of bafflement bordering on hurt, is that "Precious girls" really do exist. "These are people that I know," he says, "This is my family. My movie is the truth. It's absolutely colourless."
Though "I shoulda aborted your muthafuckin' ass!" is a fairly demure sample of the film's dialogue, Daniels brings a gloss of optimism to the general picture, if anything. Push, the novel on which it's based, is in many respects more harsh. Written in 1996 by Ramona Lofton, known as Sapphire, it was widely read by teenage girls in state schools. And as for reality: most girls of Precious's background do not have their babies in a nice clean hospital and stay there for days on end, shooting the breeze with nurses who are really Lenny Kravitz in disguise. Most of them get sent home because they don't have health insurance. Precious, on the other hand, is rescued by teachers and social workers and newfound friends. Daniels's film doesn't just say: Look how bad things are. It says: Look how much less bleak things would be if the system didn't fail us.
The morning of our rescheduled interview, Daniels calls to reschedule again. He has a terrible cold. He's hoping we can do the interview on the phone. And in fact, he says – suddenly hitting a stride of salesmanship that makes you understand how his movies get funded – a phone interview would be better for him because he wouldn't feel he had to perform the way he always does when he meets people. Instead, I would get the real him: he would be lying in bed staring at the ceiling and thinking deeply. Daniels is a master of the double bind.
"So," he says, reviewing the options, "we could do it over the phone. Or we could do it another day. Or you could come lie in bed next to me and stare at the ceiling."
"I'd love that," I say, "but maybe we should do the lying in bed thing when you're a little less sick."
A few days later, Daniels comes to the door of his midtown New York loft in brown checked pyjamas and white waffle hotel slippers. His hair is in a more conservative crop than his usual corkscrew craziness, and he's grown a moustache that looks like a homage to Shaft. He's a little groggy, a little hoarse, exhausted after his world tour with Precious and still not entirely well. He offers me a soluble vitamin C, and when he finds there's only one left, we decide his need is greater.
Daniels describes his casting method to me. "I'm really psychic," he says. "I've witnessed death, I've witnessed birth, I've been around. So you just know. Rarely am I wrong about a person's character. Rarely. Sometimes if a cute guy…" He laughs. "You know, that's happened. But when it comes to the gals – or an ugly dude – I'm spot on."
This is how Daniels speaks: exaggeratedly, with colourful loose ends left scattered about the conversation. Birth? Death? The truth is, he and his casting director Billy Hopkins (who is also his ex-partner and the co-parent of their 13-year-old twins) interviewed 500 girls for the part of Precious. Gabby Sidibe was told of the film by her mother, a singer who busks in the New York subway and had been approached to audition for the role of Precious's mother, eventually played by Mo'Nique. Now that people have, as Daniels puts it, "been exposed to the real Gabby", through her interviews on the talkshow circuit, her performance in Precious is all the more astonishing.
The "real" Sidibe is giggly, quick-witted and full of life. Precious as played by Sidibe is a hunched hulk of a person who is shut down in every way: her voice, her face, her demeanour are all so impenetrable – and held in such contempt by the people around her – that she seems almost invisible, despite her size. An entire film about a huge, invisible human being sounds like an impossibility, but there it is. When she utters her first words in class, at the school that will in some measure save her, the teacher asks her how speaking up makes her feel. "Here," she replies. "It makes me feel here." Gradually, she makes her presence felt in increasingly positive, self-defining ways.
One day during the Precious shoot, a tall blond model turned up to film a brief sequence in which Precious looks in the mirror and sees this fantasy version of herself. Daniels felt that several crew members treated the model like royalty and pushed Sidibe out of the way. "If you don't know that Precious is the real star of this movie," he told them, "you should not be working on it." Then he fired them.
Precious's mother is superbly played by Mo'Nique (inspired by Richard Pryor's performance in Lady Sings the Blues, Daniels likes to cast comedians), and Mariah Carey plays a social worker. Both are Daniels's regular partners in crime. Much has been made of Carey's unglamorous appearance, complete with fuzzy moustache. Daniels relishes the torture he put her through. "She said: 'Lee, I don't have any make-up on. Are you happy?' I said: 'No, darling, we're just gonna put some bags under your eyes'." Then he had the "genius" idea of getting a mascara wand and brushing it lightly over her upper lip. Daniels laughs at the memory: "She looks at me literally like I have lost my fuckin' mind."
Daniels puts a great deal of himself into his movies – and by that I don't mean that they're autobiographical, though he's not shy of revealing the analogies. I mean that he identifies so intimately with the subjects he wants to portray that everything he does becomes an experiment in self-portraiture.
Shadowboxer, his first film as director, combines the hit-man cool of John Boorman's Point Blank with the operatic colour of an Almodóvar movie. In the expression of Helen Mirren, who starred in it, it's "purple". (One of Daniels's favourite movies is Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, a film that flirts with kitsch and deals with racial identity.) Mirren plays a hired killer who wears exclusively Vivienne Westwood clothes and works with her stepson, Cuba Gooding Jr. Her maternal instinct leads her to rescue a pregnant woman they have been paid to murder, and her step-maternal instinct somehow leads her to fall into the arms of Cuba Gooding. It's the story of a double – or triple – bind.
At the time, Daniels was high on the success of his work as a producer. With his first movie, Monster's Ball, he made history – Halle Berry became the first black woman to win an Oscar for best actress. With The Woodsman, his second, he earned serious art house credentials by portraying a convicted child molester in a human light. The combination seemed to imply that he could do anything, and, to hear him tell it, Daniels pretty much felt that way too. He strutted on to the set every day wearing diamonds and "draped in Vivienne", and did so much cocaine he had a heart attack. "You think you're invincible," he explains. "I just assumed that everybody was going to love Shadowboxer. I was floored."
When that film was not well received by critics, Daniels fell into a slump. But Sapphire, whose novel Daniels claims to have slept with under his pillow for years, loved Shadowboxer so much that she came to him, cried in his arms, and finally sold him the rights. He couldn't get anyone to fund it at first, but he was used to that. Every time he becomes a Hollywood darling, he chooses a project so hard to market that most moneyed enthusiasts run a mile. (Your film won an Oscar and now you want us to fund a movie about child molesting?) Eight million of the $10m budget for Precious came from a married couple who are entrepreneurs in Colorado.
So when shooting on Precious began, Daniels was a man stripped, he suggests, of hubris. He relinquished the diamonds and directed in his pyjamas. "I had no fuckin' time for pretty. You know? Fuck pretty." Instead of rehearsing, he talked to the actors about his insecurities. "By the time I yelled 'Action!', they knew me," he says. "There are some things that you really put out of your head." (Recently, Daniels retrieved a memory of abuse – a twentysomething who "tried something" with him when he was 12.) "And I find them while I'm working. I find out more about myself when I'm in the middle of a scene," he explains. "I find people having a conversation, and I go: Holy shit, that exact same thing happened to me. Verbatim."
Daniels, whose given name is Leonardo, grew up in a housing project in Philadelphia. He is the eldest of five children (two boys, three girls), and his father, who was shot and killed when Daniels was 15, was a cop. Daniels knew he was a misfit when he was six or seven; he tried on a pair of his mother's high-heeled shoes and got it in the neck from his father. The violence was something of a routine.
"My father was a victim of his world," Daniels ventures. "I remember his boss called him a nigger when we were with him – right before he died… You'd think I would know that this man hit me, so, like: Shut up, Lee. But I turn to him and I say: 'He just called you a nigger! What're you gonna do about that, Dad?' And he just went: BOP! I think he took all of the frustration that he had as an African American man during that time, and he brought that home, on his family. And I think it's a rare African American man that didn't."
Daniels had two uncles who murdered people ("I think in self-defence") and his brother spent numerous spells in prison. "The streets are what you make of them," he says. "I lived in them, and I knew how to survive in them." He tried to sell pot in 10th grade, when everybody was doing it, but it didn't pan out. "My friend said: 'OK, here's five bags'. I was like: 'Dude, I just can't do this. It's too compluhfuckincated!'"
It wasn't until his late teens that he knew he was gay; he suddenly realised he was attracted to the neighbourhood bully. "It was just a moment," Daniels says theatrically. "We looked at each other. I realised this was what I wanted. I realised it was wrong, and that was part of what was so exciting about it – the wrongness of it all. I understood why I was attracted to everybody who was a misfit. I understood everything in that moment."
So what happened? I ask.
Daniels glowers. "We did it. I mean, what else would you like to know?"
Many years later, after Daniels had moved to LA, his brother got in touch. They'd once been very close, but by this time they rarely spoke (Daniels has said that his brother hates the fact that he's gay). "He called me up out of the blue," Daniels recalls. "He said: 'My girlfriend is pregnant. She is on crack. I have a feeling that she will not want these kids. I'm going to jail. Can you take my kids?' I said: 'I do not think so. Are you out of your mind?' Honey, I'm twirling in West Hollywood, experiencing the time of my life. Kids? No way. And then eight months later, my mother called – she'd raised like eight or nine kids, besides her five – she said: 'I've had it, and I'm calling social services.' They were three days old."
He sets the scene: "The girl rang the doorbell. Snow. January the 9th. Philadelphia. Ding dong! Two bassinets, took off. You'd think it was a movie, right? So I called my partner, he said: I want kids. I said OK. I really did it for him. And for my mom. Not knowing that these kids were going to change my life."
When Daniels and Hopkins broke up earlier this year, Daniels worried that, as the adopted twin children of an interracial gay couple, who were born with crack in their systems and have no contact with their mother, Liam and Clara would lose a linchpin of stability. But they seem fine. They helped him edit Precious, and in a few weeks they'll be celebrating Daniels's 50th birthday at Lenny Kravitz's house in the Bahamas. Daniels was born on 24 December. "Black Jesus," he says, and shrugs, as if this were the most self-evident thing in the world.
Daniels has just signed on to direct Selma, a drama about the civil rights marches from that city in 1965 that were led in part by Martin Luther King and gave rise, after much police brutality, tovoting rights for blacks. It's written by Paul Webb, a British screenwriter who has hefty historical scripts in the works (including a biopic of Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg), and produced by Christian Colson, who won eight Oscars with Slumdog Millionaire. Colson's producing partner is Plan B, Brad Pitt's production company. Daniels likens the film to Frost/Nixon.
Of course, the subject matter has led him to search his soul again for advice. "Martin Luther King is next to Jesus," he says. "So how do I make him human without getting the backlash? Because I want my kids to be able to aspire to be him. I want my kids to be able to touch him. You can't touch Jesus."
I ask if he's concerned about being pigeonholed in a racial commentary category.
"Believe me, that thought has crossed my mind," he replies. "Which means that I cannot make it about King. King is a part of Selma. To me, what's much more fascinating is the love that the southerner had for the black. You know, there's a term – that I'm not allowed to use, because it's so politically incorrect, but I have to use: it's called 'Ma Nigga'. 'Ma Nigga' is a term that people use. Blacks use it as a term of endearment – 'You ma nigga', you know? Well, it came from the south, because we were property to them. We were a car, we were a dog, we were their nigga. They loved us. They would take a bullet for us."
They would? I ask.
"Absuhfuckinlutely. James Baldwin put it brilliantly, by saying he'd much prefer to live in the south than in the north, because in the north they put you in suits and talked about you behind your back. You knew what time it was in the south – you were dealing with the truth in your face. I will die for you, but I will also kill you. Because they loved us. This was not Hitler. These were people… they were breastfed by us, we were their mammies. There was a bond that was so deep, that was so powerful, and that nobody wants to talk about because it's politically incorrect to talk about it. That's what I want to get at with this film."
Daniels becomes more and more impassioned as he describes his aims, and it's an incredible feeling to be swept up in them. At the same time, part of me is thinking: if some people thought Precious was offensive, wait till they see this. But it's part of Daniels's unpredictable brilliance that he wants to do such a thing. He's the first to note how controversial it could be. "We know King was a hero, so how do I tell the story? By telling truths that we're disturbed by. It challenges me as a film-maker, and as a man."
He thinks for a moment. "But is there an audience for that?" he wonders.
There has to be, I say.
Then he turns off the earnestness, as if with a switch. "What, three people?" he laughs. "I gotta make money. This is called showbusiness, honey. Show – BIZNESS!"
On the subway home, images of Daniels come to me in flashes: his tears in close-up as he tells me how he struggles every day to love himself; his arm shooting out suddenly in depiction of one of his father's beatings; his giggle as he confesses that "cute guys" have occasionally clouded his judgment.
It seems to me at that moment that he is like a cinematic ready-made, a movie unto himself. There's so much rawness and melodrama in Daniels, and so much camp and subversion, that you genuinely wonder what he'll do next. Selma, yes; but after that, he says – and why does this not surprise me? – he can't wait to do a musical.
* guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010