The lure of movies—and their directors—is that they are always capable of surprising us. Lee Daniels made his directing debut in 2006 with a film called Shadowboxer. Although it starred two Oscar winners, Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr., the bizarre melodrama was poorly received by critics and audiences. Daniels’ career could have ended right there.
Instead, when his next movie, Precious had its world premiere at Sundance in January, it became one of the few films in the festival’s history to win both the grand jury prize and the audience award. “It was a little scary to show the movie to all these lily white people in Sundance,” Daniels admits. “But the response was very gratifying and shows that the story is universal.”
Daniels’ own odyssey has been almost as remarkable as that of Precious, his abused lead character who longs to escape her grim surroundings. Raised in the projects of Philadelphia, he worked in health care for many years before becoming a casting director and manager. He then decided to produce movies and found financing for several edgy films, including Monster’s Ball, which won an Oscar for Halle Berry, and The Woodsman, a stark study of pedophilia starring Kevin Bacon. Daniels’ movies, The New York Times noted, were “far more Todd Solondz than Tyler Perry.” Daniels adds that he would have had a much easier time in the business if he made movies expected of black directors, like Barbershop or Big Momma’s House.
Instead, for his second directorial effort, he chose the novel Push by Sapphire. When he read the novel, he says, “It brought back a feeling I had when I was 11 years old and living in the projects in Philly. I answered the door one day, and a neighbor of ours, a light-skinned black girl who was about five years old, was standing there naked and bleeding. She’d been beaten with an electrical cord. I looked in my mom’s eyes, and it was the first time I ever saw fear in her eyes. When I read Sapphire’s book, those memories came back, and I felt I have to deal with this.”
As he began working on Precious, even more painful memories flooded in. As the oldest of five children, Daniels says he experienced the brunt of his father’s anger and frustration. “I was beaten quite a bit for no reason,” he says. (His father, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty when Daniels was 13.)
• More Daily Beast coverage of Precious“One of my earliest memories is of being put in a trash can,” he says in a quiet voice. “I was five years old. My dad was playing cards with some of his friends. I put on my mother’s red high heel shoes because they looked pretty to me. He saw me and he got furious. He said I was gay and would never amount to anything, and he threw me in a trash can. And I remember the only way I could deal with it was to escape to a fantasy world. That’s what gave me the idea for the fantasy scenes in the movie, which were not in the book.”
When Precious is raped by her father or beaten by her mother (Mo’Nique), she dreams of herself as a superstar in a perfect, antiseptic universe. Daniels pulls off a neat balancing act, capturing the brutal reality of his heroine’s home life, but knowing when to pull back to allow the audience some respite.
Casting is crucial to the film’s success. There’s newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as Precious and, of course, Mo’Nique, who had worked with him on Shadowboxer, as Precious’ abusive mother. The actress fearlessly illuminates the character’s viciousness, but and also manages to make us feel a smidgen of pity for this wreck of a woman.
In the end, Daniels says he hopes the audience will come away from the movie feeling the same sense of liberation as the bruised central character. “Precious finds dignity at the end of the story,” he says. “The cycle was broken, and she can walk out into the world with confidence.”
Stephen Farber is a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter. He has written reviews and articles on film for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Movieline, Esquire, New York, New West, and many other publications. He has interviewed hundreds of actors, writers, directors and Hollywood moguls for these publications. Farber has written four books on film: The Movie Rating Game; Hollywood Dynasties; Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case; and Hollywood on the Couch.