Preciously Behind the scenes…
written by NZINGHA for ZFACEINC,nyc
My journey to PRECIOUS began in 1996 with the Novel written by Author and Poet Sapphire. I lived in downtown Brooklyn at the time and was part of a group of intellectual neo soulers that were setting the entertainment industry on its ear with our voices and visions. We were the soundtrack to the new black aesthetic, sight and sound. We were this generations hope of a new Black Renaissance. I hand no idea how much I would really be a part of this new movement in Art.
Doors were now being opened to African American/African Caribbean story tellers. Modern authors like Terry McMillan(Waiting to Exhale), Walter Mosely(Devil In The Blue Dress), Sista Souljah(The Coldest Winter Ever, yet to be adapted), then Sapphire (PUSH) with her stirring in your face novel, people indeed were experiencing a new “Black Literary Renaissance”.
Despite the mainstream media ballyhoo and irreverence, Black writing was and is experiencing a renaissance. And if it was taking place in the literary world we would surely eventually see it make it’s way to Hollywood.
“They decide what is hailed and what is dismissed.They say what is produced and what will never be. They choose the superstars. They tell us what is literature.They select who will be idolized and followed.”
~ Amiri Baraka, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Spike Lee, John Singleton, Robert Townsend, the Wayans Brothers and the Hudlin Brothers were popular and were becoming the mainstream voices for African American cinema.
This book, this little book that only has 192 pages had so much impact on me that I wasn’t right for days! I was on a promo tour while reading it. I had to put it down at several points because it made me nauseous. It stirred up a lot of questions and feelings. I recall being furious at this reading, furious at Sapphire for writing it and writing it that way, furious for Precious who oddly was a hero in the midst of chaos and unprotected and violated by those who were supposed to love and protect her. I was furious at illiteracy, at those who lack compassion, furious with every character that came into contact with Precious in both good and bad ways.
In essence the title of the book was appropriate…PUSH! Push you to the brink of making a life choice in my mind. A choice to be a help or a hinderance. Help those for whom this is their personal story and are a “walking wounded”. Help for those who are functioning illiterate, help for those who have never seen, heard or experienced what transpired in the book to understand, have compassion and help.
I began doing more volunteer work whoever my busy schedule would allow. It made me a more gracious Artist remembering everyone has a story and has come from someplace.
This indeed was someone’s no many people’s untold story…
This story’s characters reminded me of a film I saw Starring Sidney Portier, Elizabeth Hartman and Shelly Winters made in 1965 called “A Patch of Blue”. Back then films of this nature were marketed and handled very differently. The stories scenario is different but the nature of abuse, cruelty, ignorance, illiteracy and redemption in both PRECIOUS and A Patch Of Blue are the same.
“A Patch Of Blue Trailer” http://youtu.be/2f64hh6k8jc
Many people focused on the films mild subject of integration negating the even bigger subject matter of family abuse and negligence, rape, and alcoholism. By today’s standards Roseanne and Opah would both be reported to the Bureau of Child Welfare for their abuse of Selina.
Like Precious, Selina had much to contend with in her horrid home life and yet, in the midst of the chaos come a loving and helpful individual in Sidney Poitiers character Gordon. Like Gordon is to Selina so is Ms. Rain to Precious…a teacher, a guide and a helpful loving friend.
The characters of Selina are like Precious, Gordon like Ms. Rain, Roseanne like Mary. In fact a year after the films original release in 1966 it had Oscar nominated actors too. Shelly Winters was nominated for Best Supporting Actress as the role of Roseanne, much like Mo’Nique for her role as Mary and both ladies won! Similar roles different era’s. A Patch Of Blue a bit less graphic because of the era it was shot in was indeed a brave film much like PRECIOUS the courage to address hard subject matter head on. Both pictures are winners!
Shelly Winters accepting her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “A Patch Of Blue”
After completing the book I remember sitting in the Brooklyn Moon Cafe chatting with my girlfriends about it and the reaction was all the same fury, pain yet oddly a new word…VICTORY. Our heroine Precious was victorious! A massive overcomer, not bitter but better!! This was a hot topic book a book bomb”, to drop when you saw violation of any sort.
Then the hooplah over the book died down, like hidden away again perhaps to be dusted off on your bookshelf or the shelf of your mind. Little did anyone know there were talks of it becoming a film only a few years away. And that I would who was so furious about this book would be a part of its coming to life on film.
I can’t recall how I’d heard about the film being made but I do recall working with one of the Executive Producers for many years when they worked in the music industry. I made a phone call to her inquiring about doing the Makeup for this picture. Her response was one of uncertainty but she agreed to have me meet with the director. The director was Lee Daniels who’d directed Monsters Ball with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. I was floored to know he was the director (and that I would get to meet him and maybe just maybe work with him). I recalled his gritty style of filming and his complete unbiased toward what seemed to be a range of actors physically.
I rembered Halle won the Oscar for her performance in his film. I remembered seeing Halle in the film and it was nothing like I’d ever seen of her in any film…, a true departure from who she is and when that happens its because of two things at work, an Actor completely letting their persona go and the director guiding them through the mind and actions of that character. And this director helped create a whole other person for the film.
This film was an important film. It was an important body of work to convey on screen and everyone on set took it seriously too. We all knew it was an important film, a film that would free many people and work on the conscience of many.
The night before I was scheduled to meet Lee Daniels, I’d received a phone call requiring that I put together a presentation that would depict the look of the era in which the film was to be shot in because the film was considered a “period piece”. I thought to myself “The 80’s…..A PERIOD?!?! HEY LAY OFF IT!!! THAT WAS WHEN I WAS A TEEN!!” Essentially are you calling us old? Lolol well I can laugh now about it…yeah, I guess the 80’s is a period.
So, I went deep into midnight until morning hibernation and research. Research to put together a power point presentation that not only showed the fashion of the time but, the lifestyle and the music of the era in one montage. I went to Lees house that morning exhausted, a bundle of nerves and had a myriad of questions on my mind to ask him.
He came from one of the rooms as I waited for him in his living room. He was tall, handsome, a great smile, and had a head full of Curly Afro hair. I immediately liked him. He gave me a wonderful compliment and then, we began our meeting and my 80’s presentation. Lee was impressed and so we began to talk about the film. I’d told him I’d read the book and my feelings about it when it first was released. I asked him how was he going to remain true to the book? How is it even possible to convey all that’s there in the book and still get FCC approval on the film because, the book was quite graphic. The content of the book was too important to water down any of the situations or characters. How Lee, how? How are you gonna do this? How are you going to create Mary (the monster mom from hell)?
Lee was about to show me and the whole world, how this film could work! I was immediately hired for the project. The first in my department. He told me that there would be some recording artists in the film as well (ones I’d had as previous clients and had a rapport with, so it would not be uncomfortable for anyone). Lee had an amazing cast of some seasoned and some unknown actors. The cast was stellar.
Mo’Nique who we all knew would be up for some kind of award yes even the possibility of an Oscar (which I’m proud and glad to say she won!) and newcomer Gabbourey Sidibe who blew all of us away day after day of filming. Paula Patton as Ms. Rain a shining light in Precious’ world. Paul’s real life grace was poured into her character in the film her compassion was genuinely felt and conveyed.
The Makeup and Hair on this film had to be authentic 80’s style. I realized my part in this film was to help in developing the look of the characters as well as what action is going on in the scenes. Makeup in any film cannot go overlooked. Our department is an integral part of the storytelling. And the makeup here was not all going to be pretty pretty makeup, we would at some point get grimy with it.
The Makeup Department comprised of Department Head: Toy Russell, Key Makeup: Tomisina Smith and Assistant Makeup: yours truly. We did not sleep at all on this film we worked hard. Breaking down the script and developing the characters had us all in a huddle discussing different looks and all aspects of how the makeup would be executed to how the set would be run since we had do many female actors on this picture.
I recall one night on set all 3 of us tag teamed Gabby because Lee was ready to shoot…”PRONTO!!!”and we’d had to change her whole look from a previous scene change. We’d had to practically do her makeup in 10minutes right on set!!! Trust me it was harder than you think to match the exact look we’d shot only days ago with a continuity photo in one hand and a makeup brush in the other and work around the Hair Department who had to do the same thing with hair! All of us pulling at poor Gabby but, she was truly the consummate pro!!!
Here’s the article written in Makeup Artist Magazine giving all the makeup details.
I will always remember my time working on this film. Many great moments of laughter and some tears but over all this tender film with it’s powerhouse actors will always be remembered and be indoctrinated in the Oscar Academy’s history. And be considered an African American cinema classic. In addition I’m proud to say I was part of the making of this film.
Thank you Lee Daniels and Lisa Cortes for giving me the opportunity in joining the crew on an Oscar nominated film!!! Oh there’s many more to come I’m sure.