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For 'Precious' director Lee Daniels, it's personal

The filmmaker keeps returning to the world of the downtrodden, a vestige of his past. His latest work delves deep into the dark yet hopeful life of an abused, pregnant teenager.

September 10, 2009|Betsy Sharkey FILM CRITIC REPORTING FROM NEW YORK

To begin to understand director Lee Daniels, you can start by looking closely at the living room of the broken-down Harlem apartment created for Claireece "Precious" Jones, the obese, illiterate, abused teenager at the center of his emotionally raw new drama, "Precious." There you'll see remnants of the West Philly apartment in the tough neighborhood where Daniels grew up. The fabric on the walls is the same, the worn couch a replica, a framed photo of his late father hangs on the wall; and the memories, the ones that refuse to leave him alone, linger in the stairways, color the scenes.

Now with the powerful imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, "Precious," adapted from the 1996 novel "Push" by writer/performance artist Sapphire, will have its coming out party at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday night, before landing in theaters in November. It will be the film that divides Daniels' directing career into before and after -- where "before" held promise, "after" will come with expectations.

"Precious" throws open a window into a world that most of us never see, would rather pretend doesn't exist. This place, where women and children are beaten down verbally and physically, where life is disposable, is one that Daniels knows well. His need to examine the rippling effect of those experiences is nothing new. Being dealt a bad hand and surviving it is a theme that the 49-year-old filmmaker has come at artistically more than any others.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 11, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Lee Daniels' movie "Precious": An article in Thursday's Calendar about Lee Daniels' new drama misquoted the director when speaking of Billy Hopkins, his casting director for "Precious." He said, "Billy Hopkins, he's a genius, genius" -- not Barry Hopkins.

It's there in the films he's produced including 2001's "Monster's Ball," which won an Oscar for Halle Berry as a black woman involved with the white racist prison guard who presided over her husband's execution, and in 2004's "The Woodsman," a pedophile's life examined starring Kevin Bacon. It's central to the first feature Daniels directed, 2005's largely overlooked "Shadowboxer," and now it's at its most painful and empowering yet, in "Precious," with Mo'Nique as Mary, a soul-destroying perversion of motherhood, and introducing Gabourey Sidibe as her teenage daughter, Precious.

"There's something about women . . . I feel for the injustices," he says. Those feelings all begin with his mother, Clara, now 67. "I love my mother, cherish her. She had many, many things thrown at her in life, hard things; and I watched it, watched her remain this stoic figure that carried on."

There is also his father, William, who died when Daniels was "12 or 13, I can't recall," a fact he offers up casually, as if that loss weren't infused with searing emotions. The legacy of the father he prefers not to talk about -- the ways in which that relationship diminished him, undercut his self-esteem, pain him still -- has in part pushed the filmmaker to succeed, because "if I don't, it will mean everything he ever said about me was true."

The father represents a stolen childhood for Daniels, a violent act witnessed by Daniels at 5, one he is not ready to speak about publicly; the responsibility he felt years later to watch over the three sisters and a brother, born after him. That particular memory is one of the reasons Daniels holds his own kids, 13-year- old twins, Liam and Clara, so close.

Reflecting back

On this sunny September day in New York, just back from a vacation in Italy and with Toronto only a week away, Daniels is, as he describes it, content to stay in his bubble, the one that only grants entry to good things. He would rather not pick through the more difficult moments of his past, not sure how much he wants to reveal, deflecting what he can with funny lines lifted from "Muriel's Wedding," which, one could argue, is a much, much lighter Aussie white-girl version of "Precious."

In jeans and a crisp white shirt, he looks leaner than he did at Sundance in January when the film, then named "Push," officially premiered and walked away with three top awards, from both the festival jury and the audience. The long, wild curls and the ragged scruff that gave him a sort of crazed zealot look are gone. The intensity, the passion and the humor, are not. He's got an easy smile and a quick laugh that pulls you in. The wariness in eyes that turn thoughtful and introspective when pressed you notice only when he disappears behind them.

"When I reflect on it, on why I did this movie, it has a lot to do with my youth, what I witnessed, and that girl who came to my door at 3 o'clock on a summer afternoon when I was 11," he says. "But it also has to do with the food I was eating, the pork, the chitlins, the cockroaches on the walls, the mice we'd throw bread at, it's a combination of all that was."

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