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Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010

As Oscars Approach, Lee Daniels Discusses Precious

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Will Precious be this year’s Slumdog Millionaire and sweep the Academy Awards? It’s a daunting challenge indeed. However, both films came out of nowhere and were greeted with an enthusiastic response on the festival circuit. Precious won the Audience and Grand Jury Awards at the Sundance Film Festival as well as People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. It evoked a 20-minute standing ovation at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

Precious is adapted from the novel, Push by the author Sapphire. Set in a New York City ghetto, its protagonist is a morbidly obese, functionally illiterate African-American adolescent. She has been the victim of chronic sexual abuse by both of her parents. These incestuous unions have produced two children, including one who is afflicted with Down syndrome.


The film’s director, Lee Daniels had read the book years ago, before producing the Academy Award-winning Monster’s Ball. It made a profound impression, “The book stuck to me like hot grits. It was one of really one of those things that left me gasping. I wanted to see it on the screen. I knew that it would translate well to screen.”


Precious stars newcomer, Gabourey Sidibe, in the lead. Daniels, who previously worked as a casting agent, recounted, “We were diligently searching. I interviewed 400 girls for the role. I was going to McDonald’s, to Rite-Aid, to movie theaters looking for a girl to portray Precious. Gabby came in and just did this gut-wrenching, breathtaking audition.” Daniels had an epiphany, “With Gabby, the character wasn’t her. She was acting. Gabby isn’t Precious If I had used one of the girls who was really Precious, then I would have been exploiting that girl and that’s not something that I wanted to do.”


Daniels spoke of growing up on the mean streets of inner city West Philadelphia, “There were many colorful people in my life. Over the years, I have put them on the screen. “He acknowledged, “I didn’t have a rosy childhood. Some not so nice things happened. But I think that it made me a better man and a better person and a better human being.”

To escape his bleak circumstances, Daniels often engaged in fantasies, “If I had stayed in my world and I didn’t escape, I don’t know how I would have ended up.”
Daniels draws unexpectedly strong performances from his cast. In addition to first-timer, Sidibe in the lead, the film also features comic actress, Mo' Nique, in an atypical role as well as Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey, both of whom are best known as singers. Daniels has an unconventional directorial technique, “My approach is a very unique one. I don’t have a rehearsal period. My rehearsal period really is a therapy session. It’s me. It’s my vision. Shut up and listen to me. This is my story. This is my pain. This is my drug history. This is my sex. This is what literature I like. These are my political beliefs. This is the religion I’m into, my spiritual life. This is what I like artistically. It’s really all about me.”

How does this enhance the acting? According to Daniels, “What happens is that it subliminally puts them in a place of talking all about them. We are one. We become best friends. I can’t work with an actor unless I am on the same not page, not sentence, but same syllable. “ He insisted, “The actors know what I want.”


Asked about the Oscar prospects for Precious, Daniels playfully stuck his fingers in his ears and disclaimed, “La-la-la.” He turned serious and explained, “I can’t worry about what other people think I did. If I did, then I’d be in Hollywood. I have to think about what I want to see. It’s not often what America wants to see. It’s not often politically correct. It’s not that I don’t care about the audience. I do care about the audience. But I have to tell what’s in my soul-the truth that I know it to be.”