For tonight’s screening of Precious at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY — the neighborhood arthouse serving Deep Focus World Headquarters in Sleepy Hollow — a woman had driven down from somewhere upstate. She spoke up during the post-screening Q&A to congratulate director Lee Daniels on generating alternative multiplex fare (specifically, she mentioned Couples Retreat as the poison for which a helping of Precious might be an antidote), but also to ask him whether his portrayal of the film’s African-American single-mom household as a kind of hell on earth generated any hand-wringing among the black community. Daniels deflected the question by playing provocateur, teasing the audience with a mention of his next likely project, Selma, which looks at Martin Luther King and Lyndon B. Johnson. “We see King as we’ve never seen him before,” Daniels promised, then added wickedly, “So wait til you see that.”
In the Q&A, moderated by Janet Maslin, Daniels came across as an infectiously enthusiastic filmmaker eager to talk up the making of the emotionally punishing Precious — the kind of hard-knock slice-of-life story that used to be known as a kitchen-sink melodrama. Accordingly, he followed up with a little more personal detail on his perspective on Sapphire’s novel Push, the source material for Precious. His own father died when he was 13 years old, he said, leaving him as the oldest child in the household, who had to learn to take care of his own family. “It’s hard to tell the truth, show it, [and] expose yourself to an environment that will judge you,” he said.
Earlier, he had made vague references to his own life story, acknowledging that the film — which imposes his own perspective on Sapphire’s framework — is in some ways difficult for his mother to watch. “My mother is a staunch supporter of Tyler Perry,” he noted, to chuckles from the audience. “She asked me, ‘Why can’t you make movies like Tyler Perry? Miss Maybelle down at the church says something must have happened to you!'” That was part of his inspiration to put an artistic slant on “urban” material, he explained.
The finished film has Perry’s name in the credits (as executive producer) but Daniels acknowledges that it’s a very different animal, especially where his mother is concerned. “It’s like a wound for her … an opening of stuff she doesn’t want to look at,” he said.
Daniels also talked filmmaking, claiming to believe in neither rehearsal nor improvisation. What he favors instead, he said, is a lot of conversation to get everyone on the same wavelength. It must work, because the film’s easygoing performances are probably its greatest virtue. “The words are the words, and they’re very powerful,” he said. “How you get there on screen is by understanding me. Before I yell action, we’re on the same paragraph, sentence, or syllable. We’re the same unit.”
Maslin kept coming back to the question of awards and acceptance speeches (she thinks Daniels will be receiving and delivering lots of them), but Daniels seemed to be trying not to think about such stuff. In his own remarks, he kept returning to the notion of a “post-racial” society, saying that his film has helped him come closer to believing in that ideal.
“I didn’t make this movie for white America,” he cracked early on in the evening, but then told a story about a Chinese woman who ended up crying in his arms outside a 7-11 at the Sundance Film Festival. His immediate reaction — “This is not for you!” — led him, he said, to the realization that he had accidentally crafted a very universal tale. “All of us are Precious, and that’s the genius of the story.”
And toward the very end of the evening, he recalled a recent screening of the film at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square multiplex on the upper west side of Manhattan. “I saw an 80-year-old, geriatric white woman opposite gangsta-type swaggering black dudes,” he said. “It was intense. It’s the world we’re living in, and it’s a beautiful thing.”