Lee Daniels is a character, a live-wire who stands out even when his hair is trimmed back from the wild outgrowth of recent years. As awards season marches on, his $45 million-grossing Precious, Based Upon The Novel By Sapphire, is clattering with hardware for co-star Mo’Nique, despite her disinclination toward the game. Precious’ world is one you’d want to imagine doesn’t exist even more than you want not to imagine it as fiction; this is a story of “America” as a second language. A cruel place where dignity is the one currency you’re always denied. The cast includes Mariah Carey as a not-glamorous social worker, but Mo’Nique’s turn playing a monster, a master of abuse, a mother who’s turned a gimlet stare to her own child with simmering hatred. As a comedienne, she adroitly captures the character’s terrible self-pity.
Daniels own success is twofold, as a gay man—”a little bit Euro, a little bit homo, a little bit ghetto,” is his formulation—and as an African-American director, since nominated for a Directors Guild award, who may yet find his alternately admired and derided film among the expanded field of ten Best Picture nominations. Its greatest success is its ending, demonstrating that generational cycles of abuse can stop.
During the Chicago International Film Festival in October, I meet Daniels and Sidibe in a suite in a Loop highrise hotel overlooking the El. The pair sit close on the plush couch, each wrapping their arms around their own huge pink velour pillow. After a screening the night before, they had clutched each other’s hand during a heartfelt Q&A.
Textures clash in Precious. The movie is a jigsaw of visual devices until rhythms eventually untangle themselves. Then Daniels seems to discover how to make a movie as he goes along; I mentioned Julian Schnabel as someone who had fashioned a rude stylistic vocabulary, which elicited an unexpected confession. “I think I’m taking that as a compliment. Is it a compliment?” It sure is. Turns out they’re not just friends, but Daniels wants to grow up to be Schnabel. “Out of his mind! And no one will tell you that’s he’s better, than him. That’s why I love him. Because he has the power that I want to have. He has no problem saying, I go, ‘Julian! How’s your next piece?’ ‘Brilliant! It’s a masterpiece.’ I go, ‘Julian, no, really, how is it?’ ‘Didn’t you hear me? I said it was a masterpiece!” He says it… and it is a masterpiece! I love him and I want to be him. He directs like me, too, often…”
Sidibe interjects, “In a bathrobe?” She giggles. “Unlike me,” Daniels says, “He takes it even further. At least I put on these clothes, I put on these clothes for journalists—” Sidibe says, “You do the glasses…” [like Schnabel’s oversized horn rims] “Everything! I’m telling you something, he’s my bl— It’s a very subliminal thing. I go, I direct in my pajamas, I direct in my bathrobe, everything. But at least I have respect for journalists. I’m too afraid. I’m not that ballsy. I won’t do it. I put on clothes for you.”
On that overcast October afternoon, Daniels says there aren’t many more screenings of his “baby” where he’ll be able to introduce it and give permission to laugh. “I can’t anymore. My baby is up and going. A lot of people, not just white people, but conservative blacks, very wealthy African-Americans will watch it and go, y’know, ‘What is so funny?” Truly! And I go, What… is not so funny?’ This is really some funny shit! We laughed doing it! Mo’Nique laughed doing it. Sapphire, the writer of the book, was hysterical. She laughed! There was a moment when she was on the floor. Okay. This is when I knew that I had hired the right girl. [There’s a scene where boys on the street harass her,] she’s pushed on the floor, right?'” Sidibe snorts. “She’s pushed on the floor, I’m on the fuckin’ floor, laughing, I’m laughing my ass off. I’m laughing… My white crowd, the crew’s, ‘Oh he’s just so rude, he’s so disgusting, what kind of director is he, he’s vicious,’ and I’m fuckin’ on the floor, laughing.”
“Oh I remember that day,” Sidibe says. “And they say, ‘Are you happy now? Look at her. She’s crying!’ Gaby’s like this… [He hunches his shoulders, seems to sob].” Sidibe laughs. “I walk up to her and Gaby’s like… laughing! And I say, what are you laughing at? She goes, I’m a fat girl on the floor, what do you think I’m laughing at?’ She got it.” Precious also hits people, and surprisingly, the audience bursts out laughing each time as if she’s earned the right to do that. I repeat a couple of the laugh-lines to Daniels, wanting to talk about how humor is pulling dialogue down to the syllables. “They talk like TV channels I don’t watch” is one; another, “Cold-ass pig’s feet is nasty as shit.” Daniels howls. “I love the way you said that! I love the way a white man says it, ‘Cold-ass pig’s feet’! But you get it, man, you’re almost there. I close my eyes, I’d think you were black for a minute!”
So what’s Daniels’ philosophy in dealing with downbeat, potentially deadly material? “Feel free to laugh. You have to laugh! You need room to breathe. Anyplace you can make me laugh, please, please, God, make me laugh.” And he smiles, flashing his large brown eyes, daring me to ask another.