Friday, December 4, 2009

Reconsidering Lee Daniels

I didn't know much about Lee Daniels at the time I reviewed his directorial debut, Shadowboxer, in early 2007. But I thought I knew enough to lob a couple merciless barbs in his direction.

You see, Shadowboxer -- a film in which Dame Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. appear as contract killers in an interracial, inter-generational relationship -- was produced by Lee Daniels Entertainment, and written and directed by Lee Daniels.

Uh oh.

So here was one of the lines from my review: "Shadowboxer exists as the perfect example of why checks and balances exist in the film business -- the only way this gets made is with a lot of yes men enabling one deluded egomaniac."

You see, in the interest of reviewing this one little film and moving on, I had formed something of a snap judgment in my head about Lee Daniels. I figured, if the guy was the owner of the production company, and the writer, and the director, then he had to be some kind of clueless rich guy who didn't want anything like money to be an obstacle in bringing his untranslatable vision to the screen. To put it another way, he didn't want anyone to tell him "No." And that's as dangerous a desire when making a film as it would be in running a government. In our government, we have three branches that hold each others' powers in check. On Shadowboxer, however, Daniels was all three branches himself. The only thing more he could have added would have been to appear in the movie and to set up the craft services table. (Oops, I see he did appear in Shadowboxer as "Man in Steam Room.")

The result? A movie that is not what you would describe as incompetent, but is also far from what you would call good.

In this hasty profile I conjured of Daniels, I had him as a white guy in his mid-50s. You know, maybe a guy who had spent his life as a film lover, but didn't have the talent to break into the business in the conventional ways. But what he did have was money, and money will allow you to do anything you want -- within reason, of course. Money will allow you to make a movie that no one but you thinks is a good idea. In this mental framework I'd developed, convincing actors like Mirren, Gooding, Mo'Nique, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Stephen Dorff to appear in Shadowboxer was probably just a coup, unlikely to be repeated.

But then Lee Daniels made a little film called Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, which I saw last night. And now, there's a lot more information available about Lee Daniels. Oh, it was "available" then, but I would have had to dig a lot deeper. And given the quality of Shadowboxer, the unlikelihood that I would ever need to know anything else about Daniels because he would probably never make another film, and the need not to dwell on any particular assignment, I didn't think digging deeper was necessary. I do regret not doing enough shallow digging to realize he was a producer on Monster's Ball, for which Halle Berry won best actress, which would have validated his credibility a bit more.

Turns out, Lee Daniels is not in his mid-50s -- in fact, he'll be 50 on Christmas Eve -- and he is certainly not a white guy. Daniels grew up in Philadelphia and attended Lindenwood College in Missouri. He spent his early years as a production assistant, casting director and manager. He formed his own agency at 21 -- more on personal pluck, it would seem, than financial wherewithal -- and later sold it for $2 million. So it appears he is at least somewhat rich.

But he didn't create Lee Daniels Entertainment with the express purpose of making Shadowboxer, which is what I sort of assumed at the time. In fact, not only did Lee Daniels Entertainment produce Monster's Ball prior to Shadowboxer, but Daniels' company also produced The Woodsman, the drama where Kevin Bacon plays a pedophile struggling to reform, which I quite liked. In fact, it now seems that not only is Shadowboxer not typical of the product turned out by Lee Daniels Entertainment, it's quite the exception. The other three films, including Precious, are gritty, realistic and uncompromising, while Shadowboxer is a genre film with a sort of fantastical premise, though I guess it was somewhat gritty in its own right. In fact, it goes to show you how little I pay attention to producing credits -- which, the joke is, are handed out like candy -- when I review films, because I reviewed both Monster's Ball and The Woodsman, but wasn't aware of a person named Lee Daniels until his directing credit came up on Shadowboxer.

So as you have probably guessed, the reason for this extended mea culpa regarding Daniels is that I absolutely loved Precious. It's as harrowing, searing and devastating as you've heard, but it also contains some wonderful fantasy sequences and some definite sprinkles of optimism. And it's important to note that it shouldn't divide audiences. After all, one person's "harrowing, searing and devastating" is another person's emotional manipulation. And though I certainly do not speak for everyone, from where I sit, Precious does not contain an ounce of emotional manipulation.

What's even more impressive is how Lee Daniels has matured in terms of his core function as a director: to mold the performances of his actors. And as actors go, Daniels is working with the rawest of raw materials. How raw? The lead, Gabourey Sidibe (people are going to butcher this name throughout awards season), has no formal acting training. Yet her performance is absolutely, astonishingly real. But it may not even be the film's best performance. You've probably heard how crazy good Mo'Nique is -- her monologue near the end is one of the most fully realized five minutes of acting I have ever seen -- and Mo'Nique's primary job to this point has been stand-up comedienne. But that may not even be the film's most impressive transformation. In a relatively small role, Mariah Carey is, quite simply, unlike anything you ever thought you knew about Mariah Carey, whose most famous previous role as an actress was the disastrous star vehicle known as Glitter. Not only is she totally deglamorized for this role -- she even has the faint outline of a mustache on her upper lip -- but she is 100% convincing as a Harlem-based social worker. For good measure, you can throw in what amounts to a cameo by another singer, Lenny Kravitz, who is never anything less than totally true in the role of a male nurse. In fact, the only real professional in this film is Paula Patton, who has had only supporting roles in films like Deja Vu, Swing Vote, Idlewild and Hitch. Among all these other great performances, it was a line by her that delivered me over the threshold from incredibly moved to actual tears.

So back to the core point. Was I wrong in calling Lee Daniels a "deluded egomaniac"? Did I besmirch his good name, and that of his family? Did I owe Lee Daniels more than that?

Yes and no. I stand by a critic's right to be witty and lacerating. Witty laceration is fun to read, and if it's not your defining characteristic as a critic, but rather, used only at the appropriate time and place, it appeals to your readers and gains positive attention with your editors. But should I have gotten a more well-rounded picture of Daniels based on his available credits? Absolutely I should have.

And this gets at an essential limitation of the art of film criticism. Because of the amount of content we churn out -- and the relative pittance we are paid -- we can't afford to linger on any particular film, especially one as unworthy as Shadowboxer. We don't have the time, nor often should we even spare that time if we had it, to research the background of the director, the writer, the cinematographer, the gaffer. (Especially if we aren't receiving a press kit that would have this all typed up together in a handy place.) Those of us who consume the film industry like a giant buffet, and therefore know a lot more about random things than the next guy, are always going to write reviews that are more informed than our peers. But the film industry is a big place, and there are always going to be people you're hearing of for the first time. Ultimately, we have to assess a film -- and its writer, and its director, and its stars -- by the final product that appears on screen.

One thing that's for sure: If this awards season plays out like it's looking like it will, and Precious receives Oscar nominations both for best picture and best director, and Sibide and Mo'Nique also get their justly deserved nominations (I would almost argue you could include Carey and Patton as well), it will not just be a matter of me -- of all of us -- having reassessed Lee Daniels.

If Daniels evolves from a clueless shadowboxer to a potential Oscar-winning director in three years' time, it will be more a matter of him blossoming into a fully realized artist.

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