Screen novice Gabourey Sidibe and actress-comedian Mo’Nique have convened in a lush private garden in Santa Monica to discuss Precious. The small film, in which they star, boldly flouts Hollywood’s every convention and prejudice. Based on the novel Push by black writer and poet Sapphire, the movie looks back on the worst of the Eighties crack epidemic in New York’s Harlem neighborhood and maps the despair of Sidibe’s teenage character, Claireece “Precious” Jones, an illiterate 350-pound girl who is pregnant with a second child conceived with her own HIV-positive father and who suffers daily psychological attacks by her monstrous mother, played by Mo’Nique.
The commercial prospects for an incest story starring a plus-plus-size unknown from Harlem would seem to be nearly zilch. It’s a testament to the salesmanship of director Lee Daniels that he was even able to get the film made, and a tribute to astonishing performances from Sidibe and Mo’Nique—as well as superlative supporting work from Mariah Carey (risen from the ashes of Glitter), Paula Patton and Lenny Kravitz—that Precious won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Soon after, Oprah Winfrey caught wind of the project and attached herself as an executive producer, and now Precious will be promoted on perhaps the biggest media platform in the hemisphere. What exactly does that mean for the film? Just ask Mo’Nique. Following an afternoon of serious and measured conversation (which includes talking about the sexual molestation she endured as a child), the comedian lets her epic personality rip.
“What do you think it means,” she thunders with mock righteousness, “when the person under God says the movie is good? Oprah might be right there with the Lord! She done gave the whole world free chicken! That’s godly, baby. That’s called a miracle. So what does it mean when Oprah Winfrey says, ‘This is good’? Then the world—not just America, the world—says, ‘It’s good.’”
Regardless of the world’s eventual judgment, Hollywood insiders are already buzzing about Precious, which screened at Sundance under the film’s earlier title, Push. Sidibe and Mo’Nique will surely garner award nominations this winter—despite the fact that neither actress fits into any cookie-cutter category recognized by the industry.
Precious, which will be released in November, got its start in the late Nineties, when Daniels picked up Push and was shaken, he recalls, by the “sheer audaciousness and brutal honesty” of the story, which is told from Precious’s point of view and in her rudimentary English. After showing Sapphire his debut directing effort, 2005’s Shadowboxer, Daniels convinced her to entrust him with the film rights. Finding the money to proceed, however, was much tougher, even though Daniels produced a movie as challenging to commercial taste as 2004’s The Woodsman, which stars Kevin Bacon as a pedophile who is released from jail.