To say filmmaker Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy" is the most controversial film at Cannes is a massive understatement. A pulpy, tart and sordid-sounding Southern potboiler that features moments like Nicole Kidman's character urinating on Zac Efron to cure a jellyfish wound (among other apparent follies), Daniels' follow-up to the well-recieved, but still polarizing "Precious," has been called everything from a "transcendentally awful piece of filmmaking" akin to "Showgirls," to an "instant trash masterpiece." Our reviewer from Cannes pulled no punches, describing the film as a "disastrous flop" and going as far as to claim anyone hailing it as a "camp classic" should not be trusted by the general public (and to even things out, here's another Playlist contributor who prefers it to Daniels' past work).
Suffice it to say almost every single published review has a polarized, love-it-or hate-it-perspective. Featuring scenes of Matthew McConaughey engaging in violent on-screen bondage, a racist psychopath and a narrator that keeps frustratingly changing point of view, the film is divisive to say the least. Variety said, "the film seems possessed by the spirits of blaxploitation and 'Baywatch,'" but also noted the film was "not unenjoyable" while The Hollywood Reporter praised the film for its "down and dirtiness."
But more troubling is Daniels' reponse to the mixed reviews, especially an interview with GQ, where the filmmaker raised the race card. A difficult topic to discuss without being seen as a bigot for one side or the other, here's the GQ transcript in full where this subject is broached:
GQ: I don't know. Some prominent critics like it, others don't.
Lee Daniels: I think, too, that, and it's so politically incorrect to talk about racism—you simply can't—but I think that if it were Pedro Almodovor or some Italian director telling the story we wouldn't be in the situation we're in. I should be doing Precious—urban stories that make sense for me. How dare I step out of my comfort zone and tell a story like this. That's the way I think it is. But, that's not my destiny.
GQ: I wonder if part of the racism is that you're a black director taking one of the most adored white actresses of our era and you make her squat and pee on Zac Efron. And even what you have Matthew McConaughey do for you…
Lee Daniels: And you know what? They love me. As much as I love them. And they trusted me and they believed and we're all working together again. I don't know what it all means. It means: Get ready, it is what it is. Am I really the most talked-about?
There's a degree to which we sympathize with some of what Daniels is saying. African-American directors are all too often pigeon-holed — filmmakers like Tim Story or Clark Johnson get to make films for wider audiences, but they're all too often anonymous, hired-gun studio fare. Daniels was only the second African-American to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar (after John Singleton in 1991), and one of the few with the cache to make what he wants to, and it must have been sour to see the critical response so different as when he made a film set, as he puts it, outside of his "comfort zone."
And his intentions are good, certainly. He made David Oyelowo's Yardley, one of the leads in the film, a black character rather than a white one, and gave Anita (Macy Gray) an expanded role, telling a Cannes press conference, via the Associated Press, that "there aren't enough roles for African Americans in the world today" — a sentiment that few would disagree with. And he's not wrong that he probably faces a harsher jury for what is by most accounts a campy melodrama than someone like, say, Pedro Almodovar or Luca Guadagnino might have for the same critics — one of the disadvantages of bringing a genre-y, star-laden picture to Cannes (film festivals are always bubbles, and we'd expect the reviews to be a little kinder when it goes into general release). So Daniels does absolutely raise valid points.
All that being said, we think he's displaying all kinds of hubris here. If the reviews of "The Paperboy" out of Cannes had complained about Daniels being ill-suited for the material, or arguing that he should stick to the kind of African-American stories embodied by "Precious," that would be one thing. But even the most vicious reviews of the new picture don't contain anything of the kind: instead, they focus on tonal lurches, Instagram-esque photography, script weaknesses and all-round bad filmmaking. And when he brings up, say, Almodovar, he ignores that the Spanish director has absolutely had the kind of kickings from the press that Daniels is now complaining about, especially early in his career.
This writer hasn't seen "The Paperboy," and is kind of looking forward to it, despite the worst of the reviews. But he can certainly sympathize with some of the criticisms when it comes to "Precious." In that film, Daniels showed an astonishing affinity when it came to working with actors, eliciting an Oscar-nominated performance out of newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and an Oscar-winning one from stand-up comedian/actress Mo'nique. And he seems to have done the same here, as the actors have generally been praised in "The Paperboy," Nicole Kidman and Macy Gray in particular, and as Daniels says in that GQ piece, his cast adored the experience: "They love me. As much as I love them. And they trusted me and they believed and we're all working together again."
But "Precious" was marred for many by sub-student-film choices when it came to the decisions Daniels made shooting and editing the film, and many of the criticisms recur with reviews of "The Paperboy." Indeed, we expressed concern with a clip, which showed some really clunky, look-at-the-new-setting-I-found-with-my-editing-software cutting. And there was a heavy-handedness to "Precious" that seems to have carried over here too.
Daniels is absolutely within his rights to disagree with the reviews of his films, or indeed not read them altogether, as many do. But impugning the motives of the people who write them — 99.9% of whom, we're confident in saying, could give a shit what race he is — is a childish and over-defensive way of reacting to it. It's healthy not to take your critics too seriously, but in some circumstances it can be fatal to ignore them. Look at M. Night Shyamalan, whose ego has seen him make worse and worse films as he became convinced he was the saviour of filmmaking, or Richard Kelly, who was similarly savaged at Cannes six years ago for "Southland Tales," and who, if anything, ramped up his directorial excesses with his next picture, "The Box."
There will always be people who love Daniels' films, and there will always be those who hate them. It's the case with literally every movie ever made. But by dismissing his reviews as coming from racists, Daniels risks sealing himself inside a bubble which can become hard to break out of. It'll certainly be interesting to see how the studio-funded, star-studded "The Butler" turns out next year. And we look forward to making our own minds up on "The Paperboy" when it opens later in 2012.