Friday, December 11, 2015

Birthday Take: Mo'Nique in "Precious" (2009)

Mo'Nique in Precious
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Mo'Nique
Born: December 11, 1967 (48 years old) 
Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (won) as Mary in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

The Take

In 2009, there were few films that seemed to come out of nowhere as that of director Lee Daniels' Precious. It was the story of a lower class black mother and daughter as they dealt with some horrific scenarios. It was a harrowing tale that brought, among other things, the career of Lee Daniels and the unknown Gabourey Sidibe - whose lack of Hollywood good looks were celebrated, as she was the talented central figure to the story. However, the only one between the three who won an Oscar on the big night was Mo'Nique, whose abusive mother figure Mary painted an unflinching, scary depiction of parental negligence. Much like Sidibe, Mo'Nique was praised for not being glamorized while playing a very unlikable and arguably against type. The film success paved the way for an interesting future for everyone involved. Sidibe would again work with Daniels on his TV series Empire.

What about Mo'Nique? She was, after all, the one who won. Why wasn't she as plastered in every possible cameo like Sidibe has remained since? The balance seems unfair given the general praise that initially met the Oscar winner. Yet one can easily notice an absence in her career following the time when she would've arguably been at her peak. Sure, she had a TV show for a few years called The Mo'Nique Show, but her film career has, according to IMDb, stalled until a resurgence in 2014 where she has taken up time in dramas again. This is most notable in the biopic Bessie, where she stars alongside Queen Latifah's Bessie Smith as Ma Rainey. Not only was she back in top form, but she earned an Emmy nomination for her work.

But the question remains why she didn't just blow up like Sidibe and Daniels did. Was it bad timing and she had family matters to deal with? They probably were there, but never publicly blamed as a reason. Instead, it oddly has to do with the campaigning behind Precious. In an interview from 2015, she claimed Daniels told her that she was "blackballed" from Hollywood for not playing the game. This was present in the fact that she did not campaign for her Oscar nomination or eventual win because she didn't feel that it was necessary. During her acceptance speech, she went further by claiming that she was glad that the award was "for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics." By that point, complaints of Mo'Nique being difficult to work with were also rampant, making it pretty much a sealed deal.

That's always been an odd scenario to be labeled as "difficult to work with." A lot of great performers have been called that despite getting work constantly. Even then, there's few instances where actors were "blackballed" for not campaigning. Even those who voice their opinion, like Joaquin Phoenix, George C. Scott, or Marlon Brando, keep showing back up in nominations. The reasoning is not fully clear why Mo'Nique was "blackballed" or that these complaints are accurate. After all, her IMDb page will suggest that she was prolific in the time leading up to Precious, doing several film and TV works per year. The slow progression back to a steady workload must be hard to attain. Still, what was with that very strange hiatus and why was she singled out?

Whether or not you like Precious and find Mo'Nique's performance great, there's no denying that she hit a very strange and uncommon curse following her win. She should have been staying busy with countless roles, whether sticking with dramas or shuffling in and out with comedies. With her role in Bessie, it's at least proven that she's still charismatic and able to hold her own. It's one of the mysteries that maybe proves a little sexism or racism that isn't commonly talked about. Was Mo'Nique hard to work with, or was it that she was an intimidating black woman? I don't know, but it occasionally makes me wonder. Even if most performances have *some* career following an Oscar win, to totally disappear is not something that is ever done, except in severe tragedy.


  1. Mo'Nique wasn't Precious' only Oscar win. Geoffrey S. Fletcher won Best Adapted Screenplay for writing the film, becoming the first screenplay Oscar winner of African descent (and the only one until John Ridley won Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years A Slave).

  2. I was meaning more specifically between Daniels, Sidibe, and Mo'Nique. I guess my language wasn't clear enough. I'll fix that right now. Thanks.