Monday, November 2, 2009

Lee Daniels, In A Precious Moment

Lee Daniels last month in San Francisco.  He directed the new film "Precious", which is getting a lot of attention.
Omar P.L. Moore/

By Omar P.L. Moore /
Monday, November 2, 2009


Somewhere close by, a publicist is watching the clock waiting to shuttle filmmaker-producer Lee Daniels to another location where he's supposed to be next.

"There's no way that anybody's interrupting this beautiful roundtable, so get out!" declares Mr. Daniels, 49. 

The four journalists assembled at the Ritz Carlton boardroom suite here laugh but the charismatic and playful man that they're asking questions of is dead serious. 

"I'm in a moment."

A "Precious" moment of sorts. 

Lee Daniels in this moment is trying to respond to a question about the striking imagery in his new film "Precious", based on the novel Push by the author Sapphire.  The film, released by the independent studio Lionsgate opens in San Francisco on November 13.  Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are executive producers of the film, and Mr. Daniels is one of the film's producers. 

Some are already talking of an Academy Award nomination for Mo'Nique, who plays the abusive mother of Precious, her illiterate 16-year-old daughter (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) who has two kids of her own and has been molested by her father.  "Precious", set in 1987 Harlem, has won awards this year at Sundance and Cannes and also stars Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Sherri Shepherd and Mariah Carey, who is virtually unrecognizable in a key role.

"I can't answer it," Mr. Daniels finally says about the question of imagery and its inspiration in "Precious" -- but what I can say is that in the moment I know that the play (and 1970s anthology poetry book by Ntozake Shange entitled For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf) meant a lot to me.  Everything in there (the imagery in the film) is personal."

Personal is where Lee Daniels lives.  He has been through the wringer in life, and he doesn't shy away from it.  ("I hide nothing.")  Issues with drugs, custody of his brother's children ("I'm not with them right now and so I'm going through a thing where they really need me," he says almost ruefully.)

Succinctly put, Lee Daniels is honest and direct. 

"With that honesty comes a burden, you know . . . because doors are closed.  People don't want to f--- with you if you are truthful about your life experience . . . it's hurt me, hurt me big time in the business that I'm in.  But it doesn't hurt my work because my work is what ultimately I have to live with."

He acknowledges that his films aren't for everyone, adding that a specific demographic -- "they are art crowds" -- come to see his films, although the films he does make very little money, with the exception of the Daniels-produced "Monster's Ball", which made about $45 million.

Even so, the Philadelphia-born Mr. Daniels doesn't plan to veer from independent feature filmmaking anytime soon.

"I don't want to sell my soul to Hollywood -- to just make run-of-the-mill stuff."

There's a moment that has made the filmmaker's year.  As Mr. Daniels was stepping to the podium to accept the best picture award at Sundance in January his cellphone rang.

"It's Oprah!", someone told him. 

They talked for a few quick seconds just before Mr. Daniels reached the podium.

"Since then she's been so utterly supportive," he said.

And again, in the moment is where Lee Daniels -- who also produced "Tennessee" and "The Woodsman" and directed "Shadowboxer"-- is. 

Perhaps a "do not disturb" sign should have been borrowed from Ritz Carlton housekeeping.

"Go away", he says as a publicist enters and then apologizes, signaling that time is just about up.

"You know what?  I'm in the moment, okay?  Just give me a minute."

Precious author Sapphire gave Mr. Daniels eight years before she finally relented and gave her best-selling book to the director.

"Eight years stalking her to get the book," Mr. Daniels says matter-of-factly.  "She felt that it was meant for literature, and only literature, and I had to explain to her, 'listen to me, if I screw this movie up, nobody's gonna -- your book is etched in stone forever.'  Like nobody's gonna say, 'the book sucks because the movie sucks,' know what I mean?"

Lee Daniels directs Gabourey Sidibe (center) and Xosha Roquemore in "Precious".
Anne Marie Fox/Lionsgate

Mr. Daniels begins to contemplate the journey that "Precious" has been on since January.

"Everybody's talking about the buzz of the movie and all that stuff and everything and, you know -- it's nice, really nice.  I think today (October 9) was the first day throughout this whole journey that I began to even, like think, 'well maybe, maybe, maybe, if we're like, good little boys and girls, maybe . . . the awards people will look down on us.' 

"But at the end of the day, I think the award was [Sapphire] loving the movie.  She came into my arms and she broke down crying and she said, 'n----- you f----d this up!"

For Mr. Daniels, this was a 'you-nailed-it' from Sapphire.

Realizing that the final line of his recalling Sapphire's response was going to be quoted, Mr. Daniels repeats the line then adds the following, in a voice of resignation:

"Oh well."

A second publicist enters the room and stands in close proximity to Mr. Daniels.

"The man's standing, and when the white man stands . . . what you gonna do?" 

The filmmaker motions, with a smile and a chuckle.  "Last question."

Lee Daniels is asked about any possible perception that his films, including "Precious", present black people, especially black women, in a negative light.

"I love women, and I particularly love black women.  I'd be a really fierce husband if I were straight.  Know what I mean?  I love women . . . I trust them.  Far more than I do men, you know?  So I'm here to project the three-dimensionality and the vulnerability of women. "

There's a softness to Mr. Daniels' voice as he says this -- a protective tone that underlines the sincerity of his words.

"It just so happens that, uh," Mr. Daniels continues, "it just so happens that -- let me just focus on this answer, because when you have someone standing over you, you really can't answer truthfully."

An apology from the same publicist.

"When you have -- I got a lot of flack for Halle Berry (for "Monster's Ball"), you know?  I remember we were really -- we were devastated.  She won an Academy Award.  And she didn't even get nominated for an Image Award.  My mother don't know from the Oscars.  She watches the NAACP Image Awards.  So it's devastating to her." 

You can tell that this particular issue of black representation and "Monster's Ball" has been weighing on Lee Daniels' mind for a long time.

"We've come so far as black people.  And we don't have to put ourselves on pedestals anymore.  We don't have to try to be -- you know, we've got a black president!  Hey -- it is what it is.  We know we can do that, you know?  So why are we trying to prove something?  I cast Sam Jackson as a pedophile in "The Woodsman" and cast Kevin Bacon because my mom said, 'if you make a black man a pedophile then I won't call you for a while.'  What does that say that I couldn't give a black man a job?  To do great work?  It's art!  We're artists at the end of the day. 

"And I think that is the reason that so many women are infected, African-American women, you know, are infected with HIV -- more than gay men right now, because of these things -- that black people have to be a certain way.  That we lie.  We lie to the church.  We lie to our peers.  We lie to our women.  And we infect them through the lies.

"It's about the truth, you know?"

"Precious" opens on November 13 in San Francisco.