Conversations With: Lee Daniels

Out director Lee Daniels claims Sundance's Grand Jury Prize for Push, the tale of one girl's struggle for survival in 1980s Harlem -- and one of the most moving portraits of a lesbian in black cinema.

BY Corey Scholibo

January 26 2009 12:00 AM ET

Lee Daniels's
second feature as a director -- Push -- premiered at
the 2009 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and
last weekend picked up the Grand Jury Prize for U.S.
Dramatic Films in Competition as well as the Audience Award
for U.S. Dramatic Films in Competition. Daniels is the
director of Shadowboxer and the producer of such
films as Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman.

Push, based on the novel by Sapphire, is about
a young girl's struggle to survive in 1980s Harlem. Unable
to read or write, physically and sexually abused by
her mother and father, Sapphire
“Precious” Jones finds salvation with the help
of a lesbian teacher (Paula Patton) who takes her
under her wing, teaches her to read and write, and
ultimately teaches her the meaning of love and family. The
film has an unusual cast, including Mariah Carey, who plays
a social worker, and the breakout performance of the
festival and perhaps the year -- from comedian
Mo'Nique, stepping out of her comfort zone to play
Precious’s mother.

The film is a
gritty and poignant look at life in impoverished black
America, but interestingly, it provides one of the most
positive views of homosexuality found in films about
the black experience. Out producer-director Daniels
sits down with Advocate.com to discuss the harrowing
experience of bringing such a painful story to
the screen and how he got Mo'Nique to go to some
really harrowing places.

Advocate.com:Mo'Nique, I think, could win an Oscar for this film.
Was it difficult to get her to go there, or was it just
like she always had this in her all the time?
Lee Daniels: No, it was very hard to get her to
go there. She was not that person. I had to jump into her
world immediately after each take, to take care of her
since she was playing such a beast. When I said,
“Cut,” I’d say to her, like,
“OK, all right, bitch, sit down, sit your fat
ass over there ... don’t move ... get her
some chicken wings now and ... ” We had to connect on
a very, like, “our talk” level so she
could snap out of it. I had to make her laugh. So I
played the comedian to her and Precious so that we could
come out of it because it was very, very, very
painful.

I didn’t
like doing the movie, because it was too much. Like, oh, my
God. I loved the book, like, love the book. I love the
portrayal of the lesbian in it. I love everything
about it. Everything is sick. Sapphire wrote something
... we’re at a time right now where for
African-Americans it’s not cool to be gay. You know?
It’s just not cool to be gay. And I take such
pride ... and it’s hard for me to tell the
truth.

Is it? Yes. Because I have to look my family members
and my church and my peers in the face and say,
“Hey, this is what it is.” And black people
don’t like that gay thing. It’s not
cool. It’s not machismo; it’s really,
really difficult. Sapphire was, like, at a time where it was
even harder being black, being gay. She wrote about
this lesbian woman who is her savior. It’s just
so politically incorrect that it’s fabulous.

Yeah, that’s one of the most interesting aspects
of the film, actually.
Oh, my God, she’s a lesbian! ...
[Laughing] And she’s actually very nice
people.

Tags: film

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