Lisa Cortés, an executive producer of Precious, talks about the representation of black women in film, healing, and the work of Octavia Butler.
Lisa Cortés has been navigating the entertainment industry for more than twenty years. She worked at Def Jam during the hip-hop label's early days in the 80s. She cofounded a company with Russell Simmons that represented music producers. She even started her own record label.
Eventually the Yale graduate turned her talents towards film, officially entering the game as an assistant to director Lee Daniels during the making of Monster's Ball. Since then, her producer credits have included The Woodsman and Shadowboxer. Now, she's traveling around the world promoting her new project, Precious, the emotionally-charged film that she executive produced.
Books on the Root talked with Cortés about the representation of black women in film, healing, and the work of Octavia Butler.
Books on the Root: Tell me about Precious.
Lisa Cortés: Precious was a very political and personal film for me to make. It was political because so many of the issues, from literacy to overall neglect and sexual abuse are so prevalent in the film but not talked about or addressed actively as they should be. The film has provided a tremendous forum for healing and discussion.
It was personal because as a black woman, I don't see myself when I go to the movies. I don't see the beauty and range of our journeys. Not everyone in Precious is good; there are bad people; there are people who transform. There is a range of black women in Precious from Mo'Nique to Paula [Patton] to Gabby [Sidibe] to Mariah [Carey] to Sherri [Shepherd] that shows a full spectrum of who we are. When's the last time we could go to the movies and see ourselves in such complexity and handled with such intelligence?
BOTR: Do you think the film will help to change that lack of diverse representation of black women?
LC: I hope that this film will encourage all filmmakers to look through the tremendous range that we represent and the treasure chest of black actors and actresses to work with, and to not see stories as black or white, but as human stories.
BOTR: You've said that Precious was one of the most challenging and complex projects of your career. What made it so challenging and complex?
LC: The first thing that made it challenging was honoring the source material, the book Push [by Sapphire], which was exquisitely written and loved by so many. You don't want to hear that the book is so much better than the movie. We wanted to live up to the world and characters that Sapphire created.
The second challenge was production, to create a world that was set in 1987, which made it a period piece. It was a challenge to find the right people, to bring these characters to life, and to supplement all the different aspects of production with elements that really service the project.
BOTR: When did you first read Push?
LC: I read it in 1996 when it first came out. I was in the music industry. I wasn't making films at that time.
BOTR: What was your initial reaction to the book?
LC: What's amazing is that not only is Sapphire a gifted novelist, she's also a poet. So the book is a skillful blend of narrative fused with poetry. It was one of the wildest rides I've ever taken. I read it in one sitting. It was so vivid and real. In undergrad, I tutored, so I met a lot of precious girls and I thought that her story was conveyed with dignity, drama, and humor, which made it such a fantastic read. Then I started breathing again. I don't think I was breathing the entire time I read the book.
BOTR: Sapphire has a quick cameo in the movie. Did you work with her during the film's development?
LC: After Monster's Ball, this is the first project we tried to get. Sapphire respectfully passed. When she saw Shadowboxer, she said yes. All that she asked was to read the final draft. She said to us, "I'm not a filmmaker. I trust you guys." She read the final draft and gave a few notes which were incorporated. She came to the set a couple of times, and seemed to enjoy the process. She trusted that we were going to honor the story and make it look beautiful.
BOTR: Why do you think it was important to bring life to the voice of Claireece Precious Jones through film?
LC: If you look at the literacy rates, twenty-five percent of adults in this country don't have a literacy rate that will allow them to get a job. Not everyone is going to be able to experience this story through word. Also, the movie is playing internationally, and the power of cinema is that you don't have to know what they're saying. You can watch the moving images and get it. Film can sometimes go places that the printed word can't.
It's also an expansive vision of what we as black women go through. Lee has crafted a film that has incredibly beats. People say that they can't get it out of their heads.
BOTR: How do you respond to criticisms of the movie that say it's a negative portrayal of black life?
LC: Anyone who feels is it too negative is not looking at the transformative journey that Precious goes on. It's hopeful and very true. And there's a lot of beauty in the film. The actors in it are all beautiful from Lenny Kravitz to Gabby to Mo'Nique. There's such beauty in the performances. It's beautifully shot, and there's a lot of humor. This film is not one note. You'll see the cracks in the sidewalks, and if you look closely, you'll also see the rose growing from one of those cracks.
BOTR: At the screening in Washington, DC, director Lee Daniels said he made this film to heal. What do you think is the healing power of the film?
LC: The transformative power of the film is on so many levels. Precious is quite real. Even if you've haven't been a victim of abuse, you can open your heart and see the type of engagement that you have with precious girls and boys, for abuse isn't limited to young women. There's also the recognition of humanity that's so important.
It's interesting because I've been getting a lot of calls from people in the entertainment industry who have started mentoring groups. There are so many ways that we can make a difference in our own communities. The film speaks to how community is an important part of Precious' healing and transformation.
BOTR: What's another book you'd love to see turn into a movie?
LC: The science fiction of Octavia Butler. Definitely.