Sometimes a movie becomes more than a movie; it turns into a movement. That’s what has happened to Precious. It began in January, when its director, Lee Daniels, took a cellphone call from Oprah Winfrey as he was getting up to accept the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Oprah told him his movie “split her open” and offered to throw her weight behind it. Precious went on to win the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and is generating massive Oscar buzz. It’s this year’s Slumdog Millionaire, another underdog drama of an abused ghetto child with showbiz dreams trying to overcome enormous odds. But Precious, the harrowing tale of a 350-lb. Harlem teen who’s impregnated for the second time by her father, makes Slumdog look like a Disney movie. No movie heroine has ever grappled with more issues at once: she’s black, poor, obese, abused, illiterate, unloved, pregnant and HIV positive.
Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, Precious is fiction. But as the movie morphs into a cause, its inspirational message has become inseparable from the real-life personalities behind it, who have embraced the film as a healing touchstone to their own childhood horrors of sexual or physical abuse. That includes Sapphire, Daniels—and the two iconic moguls who signed on to the film after its premiere, Winfrey and Tyler Perry. But no one incarnates the horror of abuse more vividly than Mo’Nique, the 41-year-old powerhouse who portrays the monstrous mother of the film’s teenage heroine. The actress says she drew directly on her own experience of suffering four years of abuse from her brother, starting at age seven. The director told her to “be a monster,” she told the New York Times. “And my brother was that monster to me. That’s who I became.”
Gabourey Sidibe, who stars as Claireece “Precious” Jones, says she had no such experience. Fantasy sequences in the film show Precious imagining she’s a glamorous Hollywood star. And like Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls or those Mumbai kids from Slumdog, Sidibe is living the dream—an unlikely ingenue whose Cinderella success has turned fable into flesh. But the movie’s real breakout role belongs to Mo’Nique. Already a clear Oscar favourite for Best Supporting Actress, she creates one of the most ferocious female villains ever to grace the screen. Punishing her daughter with toxic cruelty, Mary is the mamma from hell. But she’s no caricature. Mo’Nique channels her scary intensity with unflinching realism, and even undercuts the horror with a measure of pathos. Somehow she generates empathy for a woman whose stone-cold soul seems beyond redemption.
This dramatic tour de force marks new terrain for Mo’Nique, a larger-than-life comedian known for lightweight roles in film (Phat Girz, Domino) and television (Ugly Betty, The Parkers). A militant poster girl for plus-size women, she’s also written two bestsellers, Skinny Women Are Evil: Notes of a Big Girl in a Small-Minded World, and a cookbook called Skinny Cooks Can’t Be Trusted. And last month Mo’Nique, who once worked as a phone-sex operator, cracked the male bastion of late-night talk with her incendiary debut as host of The Mo’Nique Show on BET.
To call it a talk show seems a misnomer; it’s more like a shout show. From the moment she hits the stage in skyscraper heels—dancing to a funk groove from the house band, and whipping up her audience like a distaff James Brown—Mo’Nique is a force of nature. Preaching her own sassy brand of black female empowerment, it’s as if she’s out to show all those skinny white dudes—Letterman, Fallon, Ferguson—that there’s a new niche in late night. Her audience and her guests are almost exclusively black. Her opening monologue is more of a revival sermon than a string of one-liners. “The biggest thing about The Mo’Nique Show is love,” she says. “There’s no gossip, no humiliation.” But there is an edge. Last week she dissed Black History Month: “The only time you see us in our history books,” she said, “is when we’re in shackles and chains. We have black history all around us—we don’t need to wait till February.”
Growing up in Maryland as Mo’Nique Imes, she was inspired by a Baltimore talk show host named Oprah. “As a little girl,” she says, “I watched this big black woman who looked like me do this incredible show. And I said, ‘Wow! I wanna do that.’ ” Now, thanks to Oprah, she is almost certainly Oscar-bound. Wait for the roof-raising acceptance speech. No doubt, it will be mo’ than just talk.