BY Lisa Kennedy
October 08 2009 9:00 AM ET
“Do you think I can direct happy movies?” asks filmmaker Lee Daniels. It’s a heartfelt question for this master of painful, redemptive cinema.
The producer-provocateur’s 2001 Monster’s Ball earned an Oscar for Halle Berry, who played a widow having an affair with the racist prison guard who executed her husband. His critically praised 2004 indie The Woodsman starred Kevin Bacon as a pedophile trying to begin again in a world of derision and temptation. When Daniels made his directorial debut, it was with Shadowboxer, a 2005 release about a stepmom-stepson team of hired killers. The incendiary pair, played by Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr., are also lovers.
Happy is not a word that comes to mind when Daniels’s films are mentioned, nor will it be when Precious, his second feature as a director, opens in November; fearless might be a better word, though one he’d never use himself. Based on the 1996 book Push: A Novel by Sapphire, the movie tells the story of 16-year-old Claireece “Precious” Jones, played by knockout newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe. She lives in Harlem and is fat, illiterate, and angry. Adding insult to injury, she’s pregnant for the second time, having been raped by her father. This film is a mixture of pure grittiness and the magical realism of a Toni Morrison novel, and it’s one of the best and most intrepid films of the year.
Yet Daniels keeps telling people -- his mom, his boyfriend, producers -- that he wants to direct an upbeat movie, a musical, maybe. But he can’t seem to, he says with a laugh, “I keep going back to this dark shit.” The 49-year-old, who lost his father (a Philadelphia police officer killed in the line of duty) when he was 13, is deft with the dark stuff.
In early September, Daniels was returning home to Harlem after a vacation in Italy with his boyfriend of seven years, Andy. “We ate a ton of food, drank a ton of wine,” Daniels says, still a little “amped” from the flight. “We ate a ton of pasta. I think [Andy] did this for a reason. I think he wanted me 10 pounds heavier for the camera. I didn’t think about that until I got back home and wobbled into the house.”