Conversations With: Lee Daniels

By Corey Scholibo

Originally published on Advocate.com January 26 2009 1:00 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.

Push Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe x390 (PUBLICITY) | Advocate.com 

In the wake of Prop. 8, there’s a certain tension
going on right now between being black and being
gay in America. Do you think your film is adding a
voice to that?
Yeah. It’s so upsetting. My boyfriend
told me that -- this is before we saw
Milk, before we knew about this whole thing up
at Sundance too -- he was like, “You’re
so up into your fucking film-world ass that
you’re not realizing what’s going on out
here. And that you have a voice and you should be using your
voice to do something.” And I said,
“Honey, you know what, I have two kids, I have
you, I have my work, I’m not a political activist. I
don’t have time to go out and ... I wish I did,
but you know, when? In between wiping my ass and
fucking brushing my teeth? When?” Then I saw
Milk. And I realized that drag queens took
bullets for us. It was like my mom, when I was in college
once, first year of college, and I was really being
defined and I didn’t vote and my mother called
me up and she said, “Did you vote to today?”
And I said “Oh, no, I didn’t have
time.” And she started crying -- “I
don’t have any front teeth so that you could
vote.”

And there you are. And she said, “Nigger, you need to get
your ass up and vote.” And it was that same
sort of thing when I watched Milk, that I
realized how important it was and how timely the push is
right now for African-Americans who think that being
gay is bad. Because we’re tricked in the film,
we don’t know until three fourths of the way
through the film that she’s gay. She’s like
the beautiful diva, savior, light-skinned, pretty,
savior. Guess what? No-o-o.

It seems to me people are going to go see this
movie to see the black experience, to see this
particular black experience at this particular
time. And then they’re going to learn
something unexpected about being gay. I can’t
think of another movie like this that goes in and
sort of, you know, in the side door kind of thing.
It’s really going to capture an audience and then
do it.
I mean, I love that I’m able to make this
statement. That I’m able to make
African-Americans know that it’s OK. On another
completely different level, we’re dealing with
HIV, and when I do my studies and I had to go in and
deal with the Gay Men's Health Crisis -- I’m
thinking I’m going to be talking to gay men,
and [the social worker] is telling me that two thirds
of their clients are African-American women. And why? I
mean, straight women. Because black men are caught up with
this DL shit and are going out and infecting our
people, our women. And gay men are now smart enough, I
would hope, they know what time it is. We’ve been
educated. How sad is it for African-American women that they
are trusting these men that are on the fucking DL?

AIDS is on the rise again in young people, even
educated young people, so in another interesting way,
your film is dealing with AIDS in a way that I
think people have forgotten about it.
It’s almost like we were going to tell it
in modern times, and I thought it was important to
tell it during modern times ... I  thought it was
important to stay in the time period. 

PUSH MO'NIQUE x390 (PUBLICITY) | Advocate.com 

Do you think it would happen in the exact same way
now that it happened then?
Yes, yes. “Did you get yourself tested?
No, we never did it up in the ass.” That quote
from the film is something that my cousin would say. I
showed it to my family over the Thanksgiving holiday. And my
little nephew who I’ve taken under my wing,
he’s 21 and he’s been HIV-positive since
he was 14 and he laughed from beginning to end with this
film because ... and I was crying as he was laughing.
Like, I can laugh sometimes, I think we all can laugh,
but ...

Yeah, but not through the whole thing… He laughed because he’s like Precious,
you know what I mean? “I ain’t got time
to think about dying, I gotta think about how I’m
gonna raise these kids.” People with HIV, they
don’t think about death. Mortality is ... you
don’t know of your mortality. You think you’ll
live forever.

What about the scene where Mo'Nique sort of calls
her out to “take care of Mama” and she
says ... and, I mean, I interpreted it one way.
You know what it is. Don’t play, you
know.

I didn’t anticipate that of all the things in the
movie, that was the one where I was like, “Whoa,
that’s even more out there than being raped
by your father.” But it makes sense because the
mother had a relationship with her daughter based on
submission, but I was really surprised by that
scene for some reason. It would never occur to me
to be sexually abused in that way. And to have her
called up to voluntarily do it.
The book is very graphic, so here it’s
very lightly hit upon, very lightly hit upon. Because
I couldn’t deal with it. But that book. Honey.
That book ... she’s eating pigs' feet ... and
that’s what made me do the book. This is what
made me option this book and go after it. This was the
most graphic scene in the book. She’s eating, the
mother is eating pigs' feet, you smell the stench of
her vagina, of her unwashed vagina. You have pigs'
feet juice slobbering from her mouth. And she says,
“OK, you took my dick, now it’s time for
you to be my dick. Get over here.”
There’s no way to show that on-screen. There’s
no way ever to show that on-screen.

Why not show it at all? The mother?

Yeah.I just think that ... poor Precious, you know?
It’s the ultimate. It’s just the worst.

Do you have any trouble as a gay man in the black
world? Does it make it harder for you to go into these
communities? And do you think that your being a
gay man within that community discredits you in
any way in their eyes or makes it an issue for them
seeing a film by you?
I know what you mean. I think that what it does
is that ... Obama’s president, and I think that
says it all. It’s changed. And that’s a
wake-up call for everybody. I feel fearless, I feel like I
can go right into those streets where I got my ass
whipped with this movie and say, “Take this,
pussy,” you know what I mean. I’m so proud of
it that I was able to go and show my homophobic
classmates the truth and that they were able to learn
from it. And that they were able to embrace it. And whether
or not they were able to embrace it because they perceive me
to be sort of famous, I don’t know. I think it
gives hope to young, especially minority and
impoverished Americans, because they have a different
mentality about the gay man. And it’s OK, kids,
it’s so fiercely OK to embrace and be proud of
it. I hope that’s it. That’s one of the
messages in the film.

Push Cast x390 (getty) | Advocate.com 

I remember saying at the end, I live the most
privileged life ever. I think that is one of the most
interesting parts about the movie, to watch people
go through what she had to go through, it makes
the audience thankful for what they have.
And what’s cool about Precious is that
she’s OK ...

Yeah? And I mean her, like the person who’s
playing her, Gabourey "Gabby” Sidibe, because
she doesn’t take off a fat suit when she’s
getting off the set. When she gets off the set, she
has to live with that. I had so many prejudices,
personally, about someone ... I mean, here I am, gay,
black -- how dare I be fucking prejudiced against someone
that’s pitch-black? How dare I be fucking
prejudiced against someone that’s obese? Who
the fuck am I to be prejudiced? But I learned that I was.
And it was so fucking unsettling. It was like such an
educational experience to know that I had that
prejudice in me. That preconceived notion that she was
slovenly, she smelled. All these things that were not true.
That she was dumb. You know? And I learned that
she’s smarter than me. Like I would say, "Well,
I want your room tidy and clean because Precious ...
just because she’s black doesn’t mean she
can’t keep her room tidy ... I want her clothes
clean." She goes, "Lee, here’s where it’s
at. I can’t get my fat ass under that couch to clean.
So how do you think Precious is going to get her fat
ass under that couch to clean?" And I said, "Word,
bitch. OK, Got it.”

And are you finding distribution companies are
coming forward for this film?
They’re at me ... I don’t know. I
think that it crosses into black world, it’s
commercial, it’s a little bit of everything.
It’s going to be hard to find truth. And I said
this to Halle [Berry] when we were filming
Monster’s Ball, you know, every 10 years
we’re blessed if we are. And I think it all
came from being told I was nothing. I’ve always
got my bar and my standard is so high because I was told I
was going to be nothing. By my father, by my uncles…

The hardest part of that movie, more than anything
else, is watching her not have any self-esteem. You know
from that, nothing can come. How are you supposed
to survive that?
You don’t. That’s why I
specifically told my agents that I don’t want to
know what people really know about the film because if it
were negative, it would only reinforce a very fragile
sort of place ... what my dad told me, what my uncles
told me. When I was walking down the stairs in high
heels at five and he’s playing poker and I’m
in my mother’s high heels and they’re
going “click clack click clack,” and
he’s just like, “ahhhhhh.” I was
in my mother’s shoes coming down the stairs, and that
did not stop me two weeks later ... the ass-whooping I got
did not stop me, and I think that shit makes me more
of a man, because the bar is higher for me. I think
that’s the case with most gay men. We are
perfectionists.