Mariah from the block

Mariah from the block
Video movie precious mariah carey

When Lee Daniels took his mother to an early screening of his film Precious, the harrowing yet oddly optimistic story of a Harlem girl who is serially raped by her father, he “felt kind of bad. I felt people were looking into my private life, and I didn’t want her to feel exploited. I didn’t want African-Americans to be angry at me for telling this story.”

Daniels, who produced the Oscar-winning Monster’s Ball (2001), was not sexually abused as a child – although he was on the receiving end of violence growing up in New York; his father told him that, because he was gay, he was “no good”. But Daniels was more worried that some black – and, indeed, white – audiences would prefer these kind of stories remain hidden. Precious, the girl who gives the film its name, is the victim of unconscionable cruelty, trapped in an apparently inescapable circle of ignorance and violence. But somehow she manages to move beyond this: after being expelled, she attends an alternative school where she learns to read and write her way out of appalling circumstances.

What has surprised Daniels, though, is that the story – based on the novel Push by Sapphire, a poet and sometime literacy teacher in Harlem – has transcended its ghetto setting with such ease. “We put on a screening in Harlem. It played like crazy and people were laughing throughout, because they knew the truth of the story,” he says. “When it went to Sundance, I was floored that white people would understand this story. Here at Cannes, I have been overwhelmed – I didn’t realise the story had such universality.” Most of the Cannes audience found Precious a gruelling experience at its premiere; I didn’t feel much like laughing when Precious’s mother hurled a TV down the stairs at her daughter and newborn grandchild. But it is extremely moving, and was given a rare standing ovation. At Sundance it swept the board, winning an audience award and the jury prize.

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And then there is its surprisingly starry cast. Lenny Kravitz plays a nurse, and – after Helen Mirren (who starred in Daniels’s directorial debut, Shadowboxer) “got a real job and bailed on me” – Daniels cast Mariah Carey in an unlikely role. “I said, ‘Mariah, do you fancy playing a Jewish social worker and tapping into your white side? You will have to commit to wearing dark circles under your eyes, a wig and the cheapest fabric on your body, and shedding all the layers.’ And, you know, it wasn’t that hard for her, because that is who she’s like when we’re alone. She’s part of a group of African-Americans that have been blessed to have been around the world and have a little money, but who are a generation away from, if not actually from, the ghetto. We feel like a little unit – Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, me. We are outsiders in our own community, a little.”

Carey herself, who has acted in a number of independent films – including the Daniels-produced Tennessee – says of her dramatic makeunder: “Mrs Weiss is so not me – especially the look. I was, like, ‘Eough.’ Being glamorous, tra-la-la, is great, but the other thing – that’s risky, putting yourself out there in a tough way.” The appeal of the role, she says, lay in exploring “things that are antithetical to what I am known for as a singer”. In a key scene, Precious confides in her social worker the extent of her abuse, an exchange that evolves from a bored, bureaucratic exchange into shocking revelation – and which also manages to be funny. Carey pulls it off, even if she does lack Mirren’s steely magnetism. “I felt like I had a huge task,” Carey says. “In a way, I represented the audience dealing with this overwhelming information.”


But the real star of the film is an unknown – Gabourey Sidibe, a young Harlem woman without any formal training, who gives an extraordinary performance. There was an open audition process, Daniels says: “We couldn’t call a Hollywood agent and say, ‘Send us 500lb girls.’ So we had to do an open call around the country, which was absolute misery. She was the last girl to come in and she blew my mind.”

At the time, Sidibe was working in telephone customer relations while studying for a degree in psychology. She knew the novel, which she describes as “heartbreaking, because I recognise this girl in so many of my friends and family, and even in myself. She’s been neglected and humiliated, and we have all been neglected and ignored at times.” Carey, too, whose father came from Harlem, says: “I have had several people in my life who have a certain cadence of Mary [the abusive mother] in them. I don’t live in Harlem any more, but I understand something of the essence of the story.” For Daniels, the story was so affecting that he slept with the novel under his pillow for three months after reading it. “So many of my friends have been sexually and physically abused. I know what it is like to go hungry. I know what it’s like to be at the mercy of a system, and to be unable to get the education to break out of that system.”

Daniels did manage to escape, but not without a struggle. “When I was younger, I lied about going to Ivy League schools, or having rich parents, just so I could be accepted,” he says. Working in Hollywood has presented particular problems. “I used to say it was racism, but it’s not. It’s nepotism. It’s a place where, if you are powerful, your sons and cousins and nephews are given jobs. That’s the nature of the beast.”

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After Monster’s Ball was such a success, Daniels was offered similar projects. “But they were embarrassing – I almost can’t articulate how embarrassing. They were things like, who’s my baby’s daddy? Ghetto movies about guns, comedies, stuff that didn’t make sense.” Instead, he produced The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon as a paedophile recently released from prison. Shadowboxer did less well (“I didn’t understand why people didn’t respond. It had Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding in it! It was a party!”). Daniels’s next project is another about-turn: Denzel Washington and Robert De Niro in a sort of gay Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? British writer Joshua St Johnston is working on the script. Being truthful is a priority for Daniels. “I loathe men in the closet,” he says, before adding, “I wouldn’t mind sleeping with a few of them.”

As Precious wins awards on the festival circuit, there is a feeling that this is a propitious time for a truthful, sympathetic film about the African-American underclass. According to Daniels, “Obama is going to help us in so many ways. African-Americans had two voices prior to Obama: the voice for ourselves that we kept to ourselves, and a voice for white people. When he became president, it became OK to be black.”