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Conversations
With: Lee Daniels

Conversations
With: Lee Daniels

Push_danielsx390

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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