At the Cannes International Film Festival in May, in the loud, chaotic bar at the Martinez Hotel, Lee Daniels seemed, as he often does, both ecstatic and nervous. He jumped, he slumped, his mood changing from giddy to anxious. He was the only black man in the crowded bar, a fact that he mentioned and then brushed away. He was dressed unremarkably in a loose, untucked shirt and slouchy khaki pants, but his hair, an electric corona of six-inch fusilli-like spirals, demanded notice. Although Daniels will be 50 this year, he has the bouncy, mercurial energy of a child. The previous night, at the gala screening of his movie “Precious,” which he directed and helped produce, he greeted the audience by saying, “I’m a little homo, I’m a little Euro and I’m a little ghetto.” The crowd cheered.
Daniels knows what he’s selling: his films combine street-smart bravado with an art-house sensibility. “Precious,” the harrowing story of a 350-pound illiterate teenage girl who is pregnant for the second time by her father and horribly abused by her mother, is shot in an almost-documentary style interspersed with fantasy sequences. (It opens Nov. 6.) Like most independent films, it is character-driven, and at its heart is a spirit of understanding. When Precious’s plight lands her in a special school, she blossoms: the audience’s initial rejection of Precious, even repulsion at the sight of her, slowly gives way to a kind of identification.
At Cannes, the film received a 15-minute standing ovation. “They wouldn’t stop clapping,” Daniels told me as he gulped a vodka. “I’m a director — after six minutes, I’m saying, please sit down. But I’m also a producer, so I’m thinking, what’s the record? Can we break the record for the longest standing ovation at the festival?”
Just a few months before its premiere at Cannes, “Precious” won three awards at the Sundance Film Festival, including a special jury prize for Mo’Nique, who plays Precious’s monstrous mother. Graphic as the film is, it is less so than “Push,” the 1996 novel on which it is based. Written by an African-American poet and writer known as Sapphire, “Push” relied on intentionally misspelled, broken and slangy English to convey Precious’s sense of despair and rage. The novel mixes poems by Precious with sexually extreme scenes, like those in which she is forced to perform oral sex on her mother. It is almost relentlessly bleak: when Precious discovers she is H.I.V.-positive, she is certain of her imminent death. Daniels’s movie, by contrast, offers a greater sense of possibility. He doesn’t ignore her disease, hardships or struggles, but he also liberates her from them. Precious is a stand-in for anyone — black, white, male, female — who has ever been devalued or underestimated.
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