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Film producer and director Lee Daniels is known for films that tackle thorny issues. Monster's Ball won and Oscar and was a $31 million success.
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The novel recounts the story of an overweight African-American girl and her attempts to break free from the violence that has shaped her life. "Ally Sheedy's mother gave me the book to read," Daniels recalled. "It blew me away, it rocked my soul, it stuck me to like hot grits. But the author at first wouldn't give me the rights to the book. I kept stalking her, and she finally gave me the book."
which co-stars Mariah Carey and Mo'Nique, was hardly a cookie-cutter operation. Because of the physical proportions demanded of the lead character, Daniels and his team had to look beyond Hollywood and most conventional casting methods to find a 350-pound African-American woman to play Claireece Precious Jones. They eventually found their woman in Gabourey Sidibe, a New York City resident who had no prior acting experience.
Even then, however, the movie was far from an easy production. Daniels, who both produced and directed the film, fired staff. On a few occasions the film budget also dried up. At one point, Daniels had Carey give a private concert at his house to raise money from a group of prospective investors. The film was eventually finished, and the end product has only enhanced Daniels' stardom. At Sundance, Precious earned three awards, including the Grand Jury Prize, and also took home the People's Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival, the event's highest honor.
With success has come criticism, and Daniels' movies have drawn concern, and sometimes ire, from film critics about his portrayal of African-American characters. Precious is no exception. In the film, the lead character contracts AIDS from her father, which serves to only reinforce certain stereotypes, critics counter, about the black community and black women in general.
Daniels doesn't see it that way. "Black women are dying because everyone wants to pretend to have a certain image," he told reporters shortly after the movie's release in the fall of 2009. "Most of the AIDS patients in this country are black women. For me to portray and not tell my truth and bring it to the screen would be an injustice to me as a man—forget about a black man, but as a man. I would be lying and black women are dying."
All of which points to how Daniels has been careful to leverage his celebrity and power for causes he believes in. In 2004, for example, he teamed up with former President Clinton on a series of public service productions to encourage young African-Americans to vote.
Daniels has continued to make engaging and challenging films. In 2012, he directed The Paperboy with Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman. The movie gained some notoriety for a risque scene featuring its two lead actors. Daniels then created a truly American epic with The Butler (2013), which looks a series of presidents through the people who served them. The star-studded cast includes Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. Made for less than $30 million, The Butler has brought in more than $115 million domestically. There is also substantial buzz around the film and its performances about possible Academy Award nominations.
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