“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.”
Whether or not Andy was truly plotting, Daniels would indeed be in the spotlight in the coming weeks. A few days later the director would travel to the Toronto International Film Festival. Soon after, Precious would screen as the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival.
Daniels turns serious about Andy, whose identity and last name he prefers to keep to himself. “He’s my rock,” he says more than once. “I’m very blessed to have him in my life because I’m all over the place. Literally, figuratively. I’m in Istanbul. The distributor has me all around the world, going from Dubai to Deauville. Andy’s able to deal with my jet lag, my moodiness. He’s able to say one word: ‘Chill.’”
Daniels’s frequent-flier miles began stacking up in January when Precious, then titled Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, won both the audience and grand jury prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. The title was changed when indie distributor Lionsgate bought the rights. Letting go of the beloved title was easier once Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry of the Madea comedies signed on as executive producers to champion the dark, triumphal film, Daniels says. “[Oprah] is so supportive,” he says. “I can’t begin to tell you how much I’m in love with that lady. That lady might turn me…” He stops himself. “She’s as real as a glass of ice water. She’s as real as they come.”
The film also stars Mariah Carey as Precious’s social worker, along with stand-up comic and actress Mo’Nique, who won the special jury prize for acting at Sundance (one of the film’s three awards there) for her portrayal of Precious’s brutal mother. The advice Daniels gave Mo’Nique on set, that her character “has dreams too,” is a hallmark of his work: Monsters are complex.
“If I made Precious thinking about the audience, I know I’d be too afraid making the film. I had to think about what I wanted to see -- I had to put aside any fears” of what viewers would think about the film. Daniels felt similarly about Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman. “When I went to talk to people about making those films, they looked at me like I was on crack. Hopefully Oprah and Tyler and others will help me reach people.”
After seeing Precious at Sundance, Cameron Bailey, codirector of the Toronto International Film Festival, said that seemingly overnight Daniels had become “the most interesting black filmmaker in the U.S.” Daniels is flattered, but the qualifier disturbs him. “Do I have to preface myself?” he says. “I would like to be just a director. But I’m labeled, as a black man, as a gay black man. I don’t know what people think when one thinks of a gay black man -- that I’m going to come in with pink fairy slippers?
“Yeah, I think labels are disturbing,” he sighs. “But you know what, I’m [nearly] 50, man. So…next.”
“Next” means letting others get tangled up in that conversation. “Next” means bringing up his 13-year-old twins, Liam and Clara. (“I’m dealing with puberty -- hard-core.”) “Next” is figuring out what project should follow Precious. (Daniels really does want to make a musical, and not just any musical, but the remake of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity.) “Next” is striking a balance between what’s in “the bubble” (his term for life with his boyfriend and children) and his work, outside the bubble.
A few years younger than Daniels, Andy is an actuary, an insurance professional who calculates risk. “He’s the guy who can tell you when you’re going to die,” Daniels says. The topic brings up an indiscreet question, one hanging in the air: about the heart attack Daniels suffered while editing Shadowboxer. “The heart is a fragile thing,” he says about his heath and his work ethic. “I looked at Fosse’s All That Jazz recently and it was very frightening, because I see a lot of me in him.” He pauses. “I’m not sure I want you to quote that -- I don’t mean the self-destructiveness. What I mean is, I live for my art to the point that my health comes second. I understand him so much. I get so wrapped up in my work. When I get into the thick of things, I’m not good for my kids. I’m not good for my boyfriend. I don’t care what I eat or if I eat. I can work 17 hours a day -- I have. I have to learn on the next project to pace myself.”
The night after he returned from Italy, Daniels had plans to attend a party, but he decided to bow out. He’s been gone three weeks. Liam’s in soccer camp. Clara’s in a one-act play off-Broadway. There are school clothes to purchase, catching up to do.
“You know what I’m going to do? I’m just going to sit back with my kids, enjoy them, have fun with them, take a moment. We’re going to lie in bed and watch a movie and eat popcorn,” he says, making the decision on the spot. “Maybe we’ll watch Lady Sings the Blues.” What he really wants to watch, though, is Valley of the Dolls, the pill-popping, cue-the-hysterics drama starring the late Sharon Tate, a clue to his appreciation of less serious fare. “But the kids probably don’t want to see that.”
We can think of a number of reasons kids might not submit to the campy excesses of the cult classic. Though not this one: “They’ve seen it so much,” Daniels says. He punctuates this revelation with a terrific cackle of a laugh. “That’s the way we do it up in Harlem.”