African-American director takes Harlem to Cannes

CANNES, France: African-American director Lee Daniels, whose tale of the struggles of a black Harlem girl got a triumphant welcome at Cannes, said he was thrilled to see his films could "touch the world".

Set in the 1980s, Daniels' hard-hitting film is about how an obese, barely literate teenager, pregnant with her second child and numbed by a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse, musters the strength to escape her dead-end life.

"I would say this is a story of triumph. It's a movie of overcoming obstacles under the most severe adversity," Daniels told AFP in an interview the day after a red-carpet screening that earned him a standing ovation.

Daniels was in Cannes with the singers Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, who both have supporting roles in the film, she as a dowdy social worker and he as a male nurse, along with lead actresses Gabourey Sadibe and Paula Patton.

The 49-year-old, who directed "Shadowboxer" and produced the Oscar-winning "Monsters' Ball", earned a thundering standing ovation for the film, and he was still reeling with emotion on Saturday.

"After six minutes, I started crying," he told AFP. "It's very weird to know that your story is able to touch people that are not of where you're from."

Daniels said he shot the film firstly for his mother -- who raised him and his siblings in inner-city Philadelphia after her husband's death -- and the rest of his family.

"The films that I've done so far have been films that African-Americans really don't embrace. But I showed the film in Harlem to 200 people and they loved it. I thought 'Hey, I finally did a movie for my people.'"

"And then I go to Sundance, and I think, 'These white people understand my movie. Wow,'" he said.

"Last night made me realise that the movie translates to the world -- and it was a very powerful thing. I realised that it wasn't about a black girl but it was about every girl."

Adapted from the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, "Precious" picked up the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and is running in Cannes for the Un Certain Regard prize for fresh and upcoming film talent, to be awarded on May 24.

"I think that all my films are political statements," he said. "The studios want African-Americans to make a specific type of film, where we are either laughing, or shooting people -- embarrassing characters, not real people."

Daniels' next work, a family road trip called "Tennessee", also stars Mariah Carey -- who along with Kravitz works for free in his films.

"They're best friends off mine, because they come from poverty, as I come from poverty," said Daniels, who worked his way up to own a Los Angeles nursing agency, using the funds to break into Hollywood production, then direction.

"Just because Obama is the president, doesn't mean 89 percent of African-Americans aren't living in poverty," said Daniels, who sees "Precious" as "timely" following Barack Obama's election to the White House.

"My sisters, my brothers, my cousins, my best friends that I grew up with, they're either in jail, they're working at McDonalds or they're dead. There are such a few of us that escaped that world."