Gabourey Sidibe Vowed to Be Meaner to Men. Now She’s Thriving.
Ten years after her Oscar nomination for “Precious,” Sidibe talks about how she learned to own her power, body, and joy, and why her role in the drama “Antebellum” is so personal.
To call the start of the new film Antebellum heavy would be like calling the times we’re living in now slightly stressful: an egregious understatement of trauma. The film opens on a slave plantation occupied by Confederate soldiers, launching a five minute-long tracking sequence that ends with a female slave being murdered and then dragged through the fields. A character played by Janelle Monáe is whipped with a belt, punched, and then branded with an iron.
After about 40 minutes, in the first of several disorienting twists, an iPhone rings and the audience is jarred into a modern story arc, still centering on a character played by Monáe, though this time she’s a political pundit and race scholar traveling to a conference. There’s a knock on her hotel room door, opening to reveal the radiating spirit of actress Gabourey Sidibe on the other side.
Finally. It’s like a bazooka launch of sunshine through a black hole of despair.
Her character, Dawn, is, like many of Sidibe’s recent characters, immediately buoyant, hilarious, and infectiously confident. She arrives at just the right moment. That’s how Sidibe felt too: “Finally a moment of levity. Good God!”
“I saw the film, and by the time Dawn showed up, it was really, really nice to breathe,” she says. “I realized I’d been holding my breath, from the very beginning.”
Sidibe is no stranger to difficult-to-watch films that dramatize the very real pain and suffering endured by Black women. Her breakout role came as the title character in the 2009 film Precious, a portrait of a teenage girl’s seemingly hopeless fight to blossom in a society and in a family that knocks her with the blunt force of one injustice and cruelty after another.
It’s a devastating film, but, owed to the dignity in Sidibe’s performance, a triumph. It made a star filmmaker out of director Lee Daniels and, swept up in Oprah Winfrey’s chariot, made the journey to the Academy Awards, where Sidibe, who the year before was a student scraping by in Harlem, became a Best Actress nominee at age 26, alongside Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep.
Sidibe’s performance was so transformative that people confused her for the quiet and bruised character she played; executives, she tells me, would speak to her in slow, patronizing sentences, as if she would be too dumb to understand otherwise. But it quickly became clear during the Precious press tour that Sidibe’s own personality was at the other extreme: effervescent, giggly, and bright.
Her career in the next decade would reflect that, with Sidibe taking on roles in the Hulu comedy Difficult People, Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story franchise, and, most famously, the Fox drama Empire, in which her character, Becky, exudes the kind of unapologetic self-assuredness that demands all the attention in a room. It’s a longevity and a positivity that could have easily eluded Sidibe, a plus-sized Black woman insisting to be seen for her joy and her value, in an industry that would otherwise systematically silence or dismiss her.
She’s been an open book, literally—her memoir This Is My Face: Try Not to Stare was released in 2017—about what that’s taken and the setbacks along the way, like the time Joan Cusack suggested she quit the business because “it’s so image-conscious.” (“She meant well,” Sidibe told Andy Cohen when relaying the story.)
But it’s striking that, for a performer who burst onto the scene in a role like Precious, her presence has come to be defined by such positivity that her entrance in a similarly bleak film was like a balm.
“Dawn feels like my friend,” Sidibe says, speaking over the phone ahead of the film’s release. “She feels like a sister. She feels like my community. She feels like the society I come from, and the society that has my back, that holds me up.”
As we come to learn over the course of our conversation, she feels like Gabby.
The communal movie theater experience doesn’t really exist right now, so instead we’ll just have to imagine the raucous response that might have erupted when, in Antebellum, Sidibe-as-Dawn instructs Janelle Monae’s character that she better wear a sexy outfit to their dinner, warning, “I want all eyes on our table because I’m trying to fuck tonight!”
The writer-directors of Antebellum, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, have said that one of the film’s aims is to present fresh and more realistic portrayals of modern Black women. Dawn is an intelligent, brash, sex-positive force. We ask Sidibe what it felt to get to deliver such a memorable, rousing line, and she starts to laugh.
“What is it like to say a line like that? What is it like to drink water?” It turns out she ad-libbed the line herself. “I say things like that all the time. It’s kind of just me.”
Sidibe says she’s long been frustrated about the expectations—or, rather, the limitations—placed on her because she is a woman. Why is she being given a doll as a child and being taught that her worth is wrapped up in whether or not she can take care of it? Her brother wasn’t being sent that message. Why was she being taught that men have the power and it was her job to be nice to and care for them?
About a year before she started filming Antebellum, Sidibe made a promise to herself. She was going to start being meaner to men.
“I was not going to care what they wanted from me. I was never going to offer them anything. I would not cook for men or take care of men.”
It sounds like she’s gone quiet, but it turns out she’s giggling to herself so hard she’s nearly silent. “It’s like a dumb thing I did for myself,” she says. “And then very quickly after that I had a boyfriend.”
Sidibe has been dating marketing and branding expert Brandon Frankel since 2019. The two have been quarantining together in Los Angeles, after spending the first half of the pandemic in Chicago, where Empire filmed, and eventually road-tripping back to the West Coast with their cat.
“I love Dawn so much because Dawn is in charge,” she says. “Dawn is the one that’s in charge of her dates and sexuality. Of course someone’s looking at her from across the bar. She’s gorgeous! She owns herself. She owns her space. And she has agency in a way that I had to learn to get.”
In December 2018, about six months before she read the script for Antebellum, Sidibe traveled to Ghana and visited a slave castle.
She was there with about 100 other tourists, all Black artists, standing in the jails where slaves were housed before being loaded onto boats and sent west.
She remembers the dungeon, the lack of light, and the trenches underneath their feet for bodily fluids: “It was made to dehumanize us, and it was made to break our spirit in a way that convinced everyone who is not us that we’re not human. ‘Don’t bother feeling for them.’ That was the purpose.”
There was a “Door of No Return,” which the slaves walked through to board the boats, never to return to Africa again. Sidibe’s group walked through the door, but then they also came back through.
“There are all of these Ghanaian and African Americans there who moved to Ghana, and they all welcome us back,” she says. “But that was never meant to be. We were never meant to walk through that door again.”
After the tour, the guide told the group to note the fact that, all these years later, the jail is still standing. The bars, the floor, the trenches: they’re all still there. “He said the reason they’re still here is because they were supposed to be. Slavery was supposed to be forever. Our freedom is an anomaly. We were slaves for hundreds of years before we were free, and we were supposed to be slaves for the entirety of the existence of the world.”
She was struck by the uncanny way in which that revelation resonated in the script for Antebellum when she read it. “What I felt when I was there is what I felt again when reading Antebellum. This is where they want us. They want us under their thumbs. That’s what they wanted from us, and who’s to say they don’t still want it.”
It’s no coincidence that it’s against the backdrop of the historic Black Lives Matter movement that people have finally become wise to the problematic and racist connotation of the word “antebellum,” which can be construed to glorify the era of slavery. (Country band Lady Antebellum dropped the word from their name, changing to Lady A, while for similar reasons the Dixie Chicks are now just the Chicks.)
When Sidibe hears the chant and accompanying mission to “Make America Great Again,” it’s not lost on her that, for many of those people, it’s that antebellum America they’re talking about. “So this film is really a reminder that a) that’s what they want, and b) we can’t let it happen. If we need to burn down everything before it happens, we will do that.”
At the 2010 Oscars, Gabourey Sidibe was sitting front row, a Best Actress nominee for her first-ever film role. To present that category, five extremely famous people from the five nominees’ lives took the stage to deliver heartfelt monologues about how remarkable each one of their performances were. None other than Oprah Winfrey spoke about Sidibe.
“She was a student earning money to go to college,” Winfrey, who was an executive producer on Precious, begins. “On Monday, she skipped school to audition for a movie called Precious. On Tuesday, they called her back to meet the director Lee Daniels. On Wednesday, she got the part. And tonight, she is sitting at the Academy Awards in the same category as Meryl Streep.”
As the audience applauds her and hollers, Sidibe fans her face in an attempt to dry the tears that have started to flow.
“The authenticity, Gabby, with which you played the harsh, brutal moments in our movie Precious, where did that come from?” Winfrey continues. “The transformation from your own joyous, positive, radiant, fun self to the heartbreaking despair of that girl, Precious, where did you learn how to do that? When we look at you, we see a true American Cinderella, on the threshold of a brilliant new career.”
It’s an exceptionally touching tribute. (No, you’re crying.) Winfrey hits precisely on the shocking difference between Sidibe’s own persona and the character that made her famous, and what, for many actors, could have been an uphill battle in a Hollywood career moving forward: being seen for that sunniness as opposed to the darkness at the heart of Precious.
To her own surprise, that was “a lot easier than people think,” Sidibe says. With Precious, “everything was so specific and particular to her, so all I had to do was be Gabby, which is the easiest thing in the world.”
She remembers going to the Sundance Film Festival for the Precious premiere—the film won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award—and being introduced at a party to executives from Lionsgate, which picked up the film for distribution.
They started talking to her really slowly. “I… saw… your… movie,” Sidibe imitates in long, drawn-out words. “I guess they thought they were talking to Precious. People would be jarred by my actual voice and actual cadence of speaking, which is funny to me. A lot of people just assumed that I wasn’t an actor.”
It’s been a decade since Precious made Sidibe an Oscar nominee and kicked off a career she never expected, or even sought. She’s acted alongside Eddie Murphy, Laura Linney, and Jessica Lange; starred in almost 100 episodes of Empire; and recently became a first-time director.
She was 24 when she started filming that movie. Now she’s 37. “When I shot it, I wasn’t an actor. I was just a normal girl from the ‘hood. I grew up poor. I was still poor at the time. The world around me has changed, and so I’ve changed.”
The unlikelihood of her journey isn’t lost on her.
“I reflect on everything,” she says. “I reflect on what my life was like before I adopted my cat. Or before I did American Horror Story. Before I did Empire. Before I had breakfast. I’m always reflecting because I always feel grateful for where I ended up. And that means I am grateful for the bad things. I’m grateful for the trauma. I’m grateful for being poor, because now I know the value of the dollar.”
But she’s also, she stresses, very surprised: “My therapist a few weeks ago had me write a letter to my younger self, and I started it by being like, ‘Hey girl, you won’t believe this...'”