Director Lee Daniels opens up about creating his own lane in Hollywood and why he’s independently funding his movies


Lee Daniels has made a career as a producer and art director that pushes audiences to embrace the often raw parts of humanity. He is a storyteller whose directorial journey began when he entered a library at the age of seven.

“I walked to the theater section and took out a book and it was called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “ Daniels says. “How about I read that book and have everyone on my steps reading Martha, George, and the other couple? So I didn’t know I was directing.”

After viewing 1972 The lady sings the blues, Daniels knew what he wanted to do. “I started directing theater,” says Daniels. “I didn’t understand that it was possible for blacks to direct, that’s how old I’m sounding.”

That choice would change the trajectory of his life. Through theater directing, Daniels found a handful of actors who were trying to find work. He decided to manage his careers, which provided an invaluable education on the inner workings of Hollywood. “I didn’t go to film school. I learned it all on set by playing actors,” Daniels tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I’m an artist, but I come from a family of drug dealers and, you know, they are survivors because that’s all we had on the streets, we knew how to survive. So when I came to Hollywood, I had $ 7 in my pocket. and I was determined to do something with myself. “

Monster ball it would be a turning point in his career. Daniels produced the film and wanted to direct, but didn’t know where to start. So he studied.

“I saw what Mark Forster did brilliantly. I got it right. I was the first black man to be the sole producer of an Academy Award nominated movie. Halle Berry, you know, that was really important to me, that victory. , “Daniels says of Berry’s Oscar-winning performance.

Halle Berry made history in 2002 when she became the first African-American to win the Best Actress Oscar for her role in “Monster’s Ball” at the 74th Annual Academy Awards, held at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. California, March 24, 2002. Applauding her (left) is Australian actor Russell Crowe. (Photo from Getty Images)

Daniels would have the opportunity to direct his first film with the release of Shadow boxer, an experience he calls “trial and error.”

“I don’t watch my movies, but it’s a mess,” jokes Daniels. “But I also learned a lot from that movie, how not to direct a movie.”

He found more success with his second attempt, Beautiful, where he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director. The film also received a Best Picture nomination. This made Daniels a household name, and it followed with the box office success. Lee Daniels’ butler in 2013.

Two years later, Daniels made the leap to the small screen, co-creating, producing and directing. Empire, one of the most watched shows on Fox. Still, Daniels encountered obstacles in raising money for new projects and had to independently finance all of his films, including his most recent, United States vs. Billie Holiday.

“The studios never understood me. Even after the success of Empire Y The Butler, I still had to independently find money to [The United States vs. Billie Holiday] because they didn’t want to finance this movie because they didn’t want to finance The Butler, as they did not want to finance Beautiful,” he says.

The new movie, which airs on Hulu on February 26, follows Billie Holiday after the release of her song “Strange Fruit,” which many believe started the civil rights movement. By taking a political stance with her music, she became a target of the FBI, which began to monitor her.

Andra Day, as Billie Holiday in 'America vs.  Billie Holiday.  & # 39;  Takashi Seida / & # xa9;  Hulu / Courtesy of the Everett Collection.

Andra Day, as Billie Holiday in ‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday. Takashi Seida / © Hulu / Courtesy of the Everett Collection.

“Once I knew the government was harassing her for that song, I had to tell the story,” says Daniels. “Someone told me that now they are even doing it to rappers. They harass them until they find something. The police. It’s fascinating.”

One of the ways the government harassed Holiday was by targeting his heroin addiction. Like many animators of the time, he had a difficult childhood. But while the drug addictions of celebrities like Judy Garland were seen as health problems, Holliday’s addiction was criminalized.

“It’s no different than opioids, right now. Right now, now that whites are taking opioids, it’s a disease. But with Billie, no, it was a crime,” says Daniels. “Systemic racism. It’s an aerosol. We can’t see it. You know, it’s in the air. I love this new generation because what is happening now is that you guys have put it in front of what is happening and it cannot be denied.” .

Continuing to push for greater representation in Hollywood has always been something that Daniels naturally embodied. He routinely chooses black actors who are new and untested – Andra Day is making her acting debut as Billie Holiday. Behind the scenes, he revealed that he pushed for more black crew members on the sets of Monster ball Y The Lumberjack. Still, creating more inclusive environments often comes with the rejection of studios, rejecting new hires who don’t have the experience, aren’t in a union, or have a reputation that precedes them.

“I had to fight for John Singleton to direct an episode of Empire“Daniels tells Yahoo Entertainment.” What happens is they label you as difficult, and then sometimes it seeps into our own community. “

That resistance doesn’t deter Daniels, who has seen his art change the conversation. He believes that the success of Empire, showed studio heads that black narratives are in demand, setting the stage for the Black Renaissance that brought us hits like Black Panther Y Insecure.

Daniels says pushing for more black leadership behind the scenes will be the definitive sign of racial progress in Hollywood.

“Until we have black studio heads who are at the CEO level and say, ‘Okay, that hot sauce goes on the cabbage leaves,'” says Daniels. “Until you understand that hot sauce is applied to collard greens, you can never understand Lee Daniels, or you can never understand the importance of Spike Lee or Ava DuVernay.”

Produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by John Santo

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