Pop culture titans Winfrey, Perry throw their weight behind movie from book
It is "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." Already this year, director Lee Daniels'adaptation, from a script by Geoffrey Fletcher, has won key awards at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. There should be many Academy Award nominations in its future The film may tone down the grim oppression of the 1996 novel, but it's nonetheless a wrenching experience.
In 1987 Harlem, a teenage girl named Claireece "Precious" Jones lives life one crushing day at a time. She is illiterate, obese and pregnant with her second child both times, she was impregnated by her own incestuous and abusive father. Her mother offers no protection. As portrayed by Mo'Nique, she is a fearsome, almost feral physical and sexual abuser herself, a barbed-wire hurdle the protagonist, played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, must clear before getting on to what life holds in store.
During the Toronto Film Festival a few weeks ago, I talked to Winfrey, Daniels and, separately, Winfrey's fellow executive producer Tyler Perry. While Daniels (who also produced) is the man who made "Precious" "Talk to him," Winfrey told me, nodding to Daniels, "He did the movie, I'm just support" Winfrey and Perry make for a pair of high-profile champions.
Highest you can get, in fact, in the realm of African-American entertainment power brokers.
Perry and Winfrey came to the project after the project was finished. Daniels, who previously produced "Monster's Ball" and directed Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. as assassins and lovers in "Shadowboxer," sent a screener of "Precious" to Perry, whose entertainment empire is spearheaded by his drag character, Madea. "After I saw it," Tyler said, "I called Oprah (whom he'd known since she had him on her show in 2001) and said: You gotta see this."
She did. "It struck me in a way that nothing else has," she said.
"The only thing that came close was reading 'The Color Purple' that's how struck I was. It took the breath right out of me."
Winfrey called Daniels in January on the night, and at the moment before the actual moment, in fact, he walked up to the stage to receive an award at Sundance in Park City, Utah. She offered her support and encouragement alongside Perry's. She offered some money as well, which Daniels declined. Both said they plan to collaborate in the future on something.
" Mariah Carey (who plays a social worker in 'Precious') wanted to invest too," Daniels said, "but I knew if I were to accept money from Mariah I couldn't get the same performance out of her. I can't get truth if they're cutting a check."
Winfrey has spoken freely of her childhood sexual abuse. Perry, too, has gone public with his own horror stories, and in Toronto he spoke quietly but candidly about "Precious" echoing his own experiences growing up in New Orleans.
Watching the film, he said, "was like seeing my life as a child played out in front of me. What sealed it for me was when Gaby's character, in the middle of her trauma, retreated to a fantasy world. Bam, she's out of the picture. I could relate to that. When all hell broke loose in my house, it was the same thing for me. My father is the Mo'Nique character.
"That's what made me say: I have to be involved. I have to bring this to my fan base. I have to let them know about this film."
Winfrey didn't think the film could be made, at least effectively.
"The language, and the violence, and the brutality ... 'Push' is relentless. In 'The Color Purple' you get to skip through the flowers a little, and go to church, at least."
She and Daniels share a big, warm laugh.
"There's some relief, some lyricism." But Daniels' interpolation of fantasy sequences, showing Precious imagining herself as a paparazzi- dodging diva and superstar, did the trick, according to Winfrey.
Perry agrees, though he told me, "Everybody talks about how dark the subject matter is. Yet the power of it comes from a very simple place: This young woman makes it to a better place. She comes through it."
Unscathed? Hardly (no spoilers here). But the ending is affirmative enough for the powerful parties concerned.
"Let me just tell you this," Winfrey said, in that ostentatiously confidential way of hers that is really rather sweet. "For me to take on another thing right now means I've gotta really, really, really love it. I can't tell you the last time I had a day off, or when I'll have another."
(Our interview took place a few days before she boarded a plane to Copenhagen on behalf of Chicago's Olympics bid.)
The multinational corporation is pleased and proud to lend her name to a $10 million independent picture that means something to her, and to countless others. It remains a tricky sell even with its litany of praise and awards. But she and Perry are doing what they can to push it.
After this, who knows? How does "Oprah's Movie Club" sound? A reporter floated that idea in Toronto.
"That's a thought," she said.
(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.
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