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Gabourey Sidibe, From 'Precious' To 'AfroPop'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we will pay tribute to the late Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner. The leader of the funk band, The Ohio Players, died earlier this week at the age of 69 and we will tell you more about him in a few minutes.

But, first, it is Oscar season and movie fans are debating the merits of lavish, big budget productions, like "Les Mis," or gritty, ripped from the headlines features, like "Zero Dark Thirty," but there's another genre of film that often gets less attention, but can sometimes have more lasting impact.

We're talking about documentaries and those two worlds of film are coming together in a documentary series about life, art and pop culture in the African Diaspora. The series is called "AfroPop, The Ultimate Cultural Exchange." The fifth season premiered last week on public television's World channel and it is hosted by none other than Oscar and Golden Globe nominee, Gabourey Sidibe.

You probably remember her from her star-making turn as Precious in a Lee Daniels film by the same name, and Gabourey Sidibe is with us now.

GABOUREY SIDIBE: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: What made you want to host this series?

SIDIBE: Well, it's - one, it's in its fifth season and, every season, they have a different host and I guess they sort of go for people that are, sort of, Afro-centric. You know, there's Alba and Anika Noni Rose. And I actually am half Senegalese and so any chance that I can express my African side, I sort of jump at the chance to and I saw this as a great opportunity to sort of be more African, I guess, and to make my dad proud.

MARTIN: Your dad was from Senegal. Correct?


MARTIN: Did you feel a connection with the culture when you were growing up? I mean, did he have an opportunity to introduce it to you?

SIDIBE: Absolutely. I grew up celebrating Senegalese holidays and, you know, like Ramadan and Tibasci and all these different holidays that my dad grew up celebrating and, you know, my dad's like Muslim, but because that's part of his heritage and part of his culture. And so I got to see what that was like and - yeah - it definitely wasn't in the back burner of who I was. It sort of was at the front of who I was as a child.

MARTIN: And, also, with your name. I mean, your name is a name that people will ask you about. They will ask, gee, what's the origin of your name? Or, what's the heritage of your name? Were you asked this growing up?

SIDIBE: Yeah, a lot. A lot. Well, my last name, Sidibe, is actually from Mali, but it's sort of like Johnson in Mali and in Senegal, too, and so - yeah - I did get a lot of questions about my name and I've always thought my name was really special and I was always really excited to have it. My middle name is Malingar(ph), which translates to my queen, which is - my mom, growing up - my mom told me that Gabourey - or Gabourey, my first name, meant daughter of the queen, which spoke more about her than it did about me. But it wasn't until I was, like, 24 and I asked my dad if that was true and he told me, no, that he doesn't really know the meaning of Gabourey, but Malingar means my queen and it's a statement about how he feels about me.


SIDIBE: Isn't that sweet?

MARTIN: That is sweet. So, my queen, thank you. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with my queen, Oscar and Golden Globe nominated actress, Gabourey Sidibe. She's best known for her lead role in the 2009 drama, "Precious," based on the novel, "Push," by Sapphire. We are talking about a new season of the series, "AfroPop." It's presenting films about the African Diaspora.

You know, that whole question of identity is central to one of the films in the series, "It's a Lot Like You." It's by filmmaker, Eliaichi Kimaro, and it was part of the - it was first presented as part of the Asian-American International Film Festival. She's a first generation American with a Tanzanian father and a Korean mother and then they move back to Tanzania after they retired and she kind of went digging into the family story and found some things out that were a little hard to take. For example, realizing that many of her aunts had been victims of sexual violence. I just want to play - I think we have a short clip from the film. Let's play it.


ELIAICHI KIMARO: I never felt like I truly belonged with either the Korean community or my African-American friends and especially not with the Chega side of my family. Every summer in Tanzania was a reminder that this kinship I bragged about to my American friends existed only in my imagination. My whole goal with this film was to try to understand the cultural roots of my blackness and, maybe in the process, find that sense of belonging I fantasized about as a kid.

MARTIN: What did you like about this film, or what you hope people draw from it?

SIDIBE: I really love the idea of this woman sort of - in the beginning of the film, she said that she sort of would lord this idea that she was African over some of the people that she grew up with. And going back as an adult, she found that she actually wasn't as African on the inside as she thought she was. And that sort of - that really spoke to me, because I did the same thing, you know. I always thought I was sort of not better than, you know, the kids I grew up with, but sort of just different and a little bit more special because I had this African side to me. And growing up, I realized that I probably know less about it than I thought. Well, I absolutely know less about being African than I thought. And so that part really spoke to me.

MARTIN: What about some of the other films? As I mentioned, there are a number of films in the series. And I just want to mention here that although you want to check your local listings for exact times, the fifth season premiered last week on public television's World Channel, and it runs every Tuesday through February 5th. What are some of the other films in this series that you particularly liked?

SIDIBE: Oh, my favorite film was "Stolen." There's a program that the U.N. has to reunite families that were torn apart and put into refugee camps. And so that's what the filmmakers thought they were doing. That's the movie they thought they were making in the beginning. But once they reunite the family, they find that the mother is still a slave, and that she's enslaved at that moment. And everyone's denying the fact that there's still slavery happening, and they're so ashamed of it and they're lying about it, but it's very clear.

And so it, like, sort of becomes almost a thriller, where they get their tape taken away from them and it's, like, the government's now involved and they have to fight to get their tape back. And then the woman who is enslaved, who was talking about it, is now denying that she's enslaved. And it sort of just becomes a big thriller. It was really, really interesting, and kept me on the edge of my seat.

MARTIN: Yeah, I agree with you. There is an element in a number of these films of airing dirty laundry.

SIDIBE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I mean, and to a purpose, not just gratuitously, but, you know, just basically talking about some hard things that people need to talk about. By way of connection, you know, that was also one of the hard conversations that a lot of people had around "Precious." I mean, that was a hard film for a lot of people to take. Frankly, it was hard to watch. I just wanted to ask, since this is the first chance I've had to talk with you about it: What was that experience like, you know, for you? I mean, the whole story of how you got that role is fascinating in and of itself. You'd never acted before.



MARTIN: Right? That's true, right? You had never acted before. Yeah.

SIDIBE: Yeah. No, I just did college theater, which certainly doesn't compare to films. No, it was absolutely my first audition.

MARTIN: Very provocative film, very controversial. What are your thoughts about it now that you've had a couple of years distance from it?

SIDIBE: Well, I was a fan of the book. It was, you know, it was adapted from the novel "Push," by Sapphire. And I thought - when I - in reading the book, I thought, how true. How gritty and real. I've grown up with girls that are like Precious. I've grown up with people that are like everyone that I read about in that book. And so years later, when I was given the role, I just felt a huge responsibility to show the reality of that situation and to show that we're not making it up. While Precious isn't a real person, it's someone's story, and it's too many peoples' story.

MARTIN: Let me play a short clip for people who may not remember the film. This is, again, from Lee Daniels' 2009 drama "Precious." And Gabourey plays the title role. Here she is.


SIDIBE: (as Precious) My name, Claireece "Precious" Jones. I go by Precious. I live in Harlem. I like yellow. And I had problems at my other school, so I come here.

MARTIN: You know, anybody listening to that clip and listening to how you really speak can - what a transformation that was, because you are not at all the kind of dour - you know, in the, obviously, the course of the movie, in the course of the book, Precious undergoes a transformation, which is, in fact, you know, quite beautiful. But that was not you at all. How did you get into that headspace? How did you get into that place?

SIDIBE: Well, like you said, I've grown up with girls like Precious, and at some point in my life, I was precious myself. So she was so familiar to me, that it was just about sort of imitating parts of myself and imitating people that I've grown up with.

MARTIN: What do you mean by that was you at one point? What do you mean by that?

SIDIBE: Well, I certainly have been sort of - you know, Precious has a lot of self-esteem issues and, you know, she's got a lot of problems and she's very much down. And, you know, I was a teenager once and I felt down and I felt bad about myself. And so it was just sort of about channeling that part of me, that part of my past.

MARTIN: I don't know if this is true, but it's been reported that the actress Joan Cusack reportedly advised you to stop acting, thinking that you wouldn't be able to get enough roles to make a living. Is that true? Did she really say that to you?

SIDIBE: It was - it...


SIDIBE: It sounds much worse than what happened. We met at a party, and it was right before "Precious" came out. And so I wasn't a known actress or anything like that. And she just wanted to give me advice, and she just - it was - it actually came from a very sweet place, you know. While she might've been wrong, she definitely wasn't trying to hurt me or to - you know, she really wanted to be nice, I think. And she was trying to shield me from the heartbreak that comes along with chasing an acting career.

MARTIN: What would you say to her now?


SIDIBE: Pretty much the same thing I said to her then. I just, you know, said, well, you know, I am really busy, which I still sort of am. I'm still an actress. And to be fair, a lot of people thought that I wasn't going to be an actress after that movie or at all, really. And so it's sort of fun to make people wrong.


MARTIN: OK. Well, how are you doing now? What's on - congratulations on everything so far. What's next for you?

SIDIBE: Well, I just - I am on "The Big C," a Showtime series. We just wrapped our series. We did four seasons, and we just finished in December. And right after, I did a Gregg Araki film that should be out, oh, I don't know. But it's called "White Bird in a Blizzard." I'm really, really excited about that. I have two more films coming up this year. And, yeah, I'm a little busy, but I'm also sort of on a break right now.


MARTIN: Will you, as a former nominee, go to any of the events in the Oscar season? All the...

SIDIBE: I don't know. Well, one of my favorite - well, my favorite, favorite, absolute favorite event to go to is Alfre Woodard has a party that I call the blacktress party. It's, like, black actresses that either have been nominated for an Oscar or should have been, and it sort of is just a night where we all get in a room and we get to celebrate each other. And there's not a lot of press there or anything. It's just actresses. It's so amazing, because this work is sort of, you know, it's solitary. You do a lot of your work sort of alone, even though you have cast mates and things like that. You're still sort of alone. And so it's nice to sit in a room with like-minded people who also feel alone, and in this moment, we know that we're not, and that we all sort of - even if we're on set by ourselves, we join hands.

MARTIN: Thank you for that. Thank you for telling us about that. And I assume you have, of course, a fabulous dress.


SIDIBE: Getting a dress is so nerve-racking. I don't have a dress yet, so I'm not sure if I want to put the attention to getting address so that I can go to the Oscars. Maybe I'll go to one of the after parties, and I'll just show up in, I don't know, leggings and a top.


MARTIN: Well, whenever you wear, I'm sure it'll be fabulous.


SIDIBE: Thanks.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted on whatever you decide to do next.

SIDIBE: OK. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now that we know the true meaning of your name - the Queen.


MARTIN: Gabourey Sidibe is an Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-nominated actress. She is hosting the new public television series "AfroPoP." It's in its fifth season. It runs every Tuesday through February 5th. You'll want to check your local listings for exact times on public television. And she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Gabourey Sidibe, my Queen, thank you so much joining us.

SIDIBE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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