Oscar hopeful Mo'Nique's refusal to conform to expectations about her appearance on the red carpet has served merely to focus attention all the more firmly on that appearance.
In 1940, a black woman named Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar, for best supporting actress as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. The role even then was considered so stereotypical that McDaniel was criticised in some quarters for accepting the award, and thus perpetuating racist cliches. She retorted that she'd rather play a mammy than be one: "Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week actually being one."
Tomorrow night (7 March), actor and standup comedian Mo'Nique is hotly tipped to become only the fifth African-American in the 70 years since McDaniel to win an Academy Award, for best supporting actress in Precious. Far from playing a good mammy, Mo'Nique plays a mother who is very bad indeed. And she, too, has been accused of upholding racist stereotypes in a film that one critic called "poverty porn".
But if the character Mary Jones might be viewed as a stereotype, the actor who plays her is determined to resist such categorical thinking.
Speaking over the phone from the US, Mo'Nique is startlingly soft-spoken, resolutely refusing to be drawn into any statement remotely critical of anyone. Her defence mechanism seems to be to drown everyone in positivity: she is charming, courteous, and very, very careful.
Much of the coverage that Mo'Nique has received during the awards season, as she has won the Golden Globe and the Bafta, among others, has focused, predictably, on her appearance. A large black woman in a world of skinny white blondes was always going to stand out on the red carpet. But the media's discussion has been less about Mo'Nique's weight and race than about the fact that she doesn't shave her legs.
Ironically, Mo'Nique's refusal to conform to expectations about her appearance on the red carpet has served merely to focus attention all the more firmly on that appearance. Given that one of Precious's messages is that people shouldn't be judged at face value, doesn't she find it frustrating when people entirely miss the point of the film they are rushing to praise? She laughs: "That's just the way it is, baby. If we stay at a position of not wavering on loving everybody unconditionally, then you hope that eventually they will say, let's get on the love train, because it feels good on the love train ... It is such a nonjudgmental ride, it's so enjoyable."
Articulate and eloquent, if pressed to respond to criticism, Mo'Nique grows appreciably more evasive. Doesn't she find it depressing that people won't focus on her performance, but only on whether her legs are hairy? "I understand why people would do that. Oftentimes when people are dealing with joy and happiness, then we gotta go to something else ... I don't take offence to it, people are so entitled to their opinion. When you read that people are saying something hurtful you understand, and you empathise with those people."
It's hard to object to such a philosophy, especially as it seems rather hard-won. Mo'Nique - born Monique Imes - worked as a phone sex operator before proving herself as a standup comedian on such difficult stages as Showtime at the Apollo in Harlem, breaking through to film comedies such as Phat Girlz, and eventually hosting her own talk show. But it is her role in Precious that has made her a breakout star.
mid the film's wide acclaim, however, some commentators have argued that in telling the "uplift" story of a slum-dwelling, illiterate, obese, abused, incestuously raped, HIV-positive, dark-skinned teenage mother who is rescued by lighter-skinned, better-educated women in social services, Precious reinforces every racist cliche in the American storybook. Precious even eats fried chicken while her mother hurls abuse, frying pans, and even television sets at her daughter. If she could throw the kitchen sink, she would.
Asked whether the film reinforces racist cliches, Mo'Nique insists that audience response disproves that: "This movie is universal," she says firmly. "And the people playing those parts just happen to be black people, but you can go into any community ... and find those people." She speaks proudly of one "Asian brother" who came up to her after seeing the film and told her, "I am Mary Jones." "So when you have people saying, 'Well, it shows black people stereotypically,'" she says, "it's like, 'Guys, get beyond that, and just watch the film.'"
Consider what Precious goes through, she suggests, and "watch her walk away with a smile on her face. In terms of triumph, tell me, what colour is triumph? When you look at the situation it becomes colourless."
And "as for black people liking fried chicken," she concludes, "I can't speak for all of them, but I know I damn sure do!" For that matter, I respond, I can't speak for all white people, but I like it, too. "OK, baby!" she laughs.
A fantasy sequence early in the film shows Precious consoling herself with dreams of being on the red carpet, in evening gown and blonde wig. In striking ways Mo'Nique and her co-star Gabourey Sidibe are fulfilling Precious's dream. But as other critics have noted, Precious's appearance in that scene risks seeming merely bathetic, her departure from the Hollywood norm so drastic that it is merely underscored. In other words, are they really changing the red-carpet rules? "The only rules I can go by are mine," Mo'Nique responds, "'cause there's no rule book."
Whatever one thinks of the film, it seems to have anticipated its reception in more ways than one. When Precious finally begins to assert her identity, and her independence, she does so with a simple statement of presence.
Asked by her teacher how it makes her feel to speak in public for the first time, Precious responds: "It make me feel here." Similarly, one might feel, the mere fact of the presence of women like Mo'Nique and Sidibe at Oscar night is challenging stereotypes - if not about race, than about women, beauty, and power.
And as Mo'Nique insists on following her own rules, those rules clearly do not include getting pulled into arguments that can't be won. As with the debates about racism, she wants to help us all to get beyond that.
Awards are an "honour," of course, but the goal of the film was rescuing others: "When we walked into this project no one had awards on our mind. What we had on our minds, was, 'Oh my god, this will save somebody's life, this will change somebody's life, this will make somebody go get some help, on both ends [of abuse]. So to now be at this point, it is an honour, but to know that lives have been saved is priceless."
If this might be considered a slightly grandiose claim to make about what is, ultimately, just another American fiction about the triumph of the underdog, Mo'Nique - who has spoken about her own sexual abuse from the age of seven at the hands of an older brother who was later imprisoned for molesting another girl - is so patently sincere that it would be churlish to doubt her motives. Saying goodbye, she asks me to "tell all my London brothers and sisters I love them". GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE