Lee Daniels has made a career producing and directing art that pushes audiences to embrace the often raw parts of humanity. He's a storyteller whose journey as a director started when he walked into a library at the age of seven.
"I walked to the theater section and I pulled out a book and it was called Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" says Daniels. "How about me reading that book and me having everybody on my stoops reading Martha and George and the other couple? I didn't know it was directing then."
After watching 1972's Lady Sings the Blues, Daniels knew what he wanted to do. "I started directing theater," says Daniels. "I didn't understand that it was even possible for Black people to direct, that's how old I'm sounding."
That choice would change the trajectory of his life. Through directing theater, Daniels found a handful of actors who were trying to find work. He decided to manage their careers, which provided a priceless education into the inner workings of Hollywood. "I didn't go to film school. All of it was learned on set representing actors," Daniels tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I'm an artist, but I come from a family of drug dealers and, you know, they're survivors because that's all we had in 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’s Ball would be a pivotal moment in his career. Daniels produced the film and wanted to direct, but didn’t quite know where to start. So he studied.
"I watched what Mark Forster brilliantly did. I got a good understanding. I was the first Black man to be the sole producer of an Academy Award-nominated film. Halle Berry, you know, that was really important to me, that win," Daniels says of Berry's Oscar-winning performance.
Daniels would get a chance to direct his first film with the release of Shadowboxer, an experience that he calls "trial and error."
"I don't watch my films, but, it's a hot mess," Daniels jokes. "But I learned so much from that film too, how not to direct a film."
He found more success with his second attempt, Precious, where he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. The film also received a nomination for Best Picture. This made Daniels a household name, and he followed up with the box office hit Lee Daniels’ The Butler in 2013.
Two years later, Daniels made the jump to the small screen, co-creating, producing and directing Empire, one of the most-watched shows on Fox. Still, Daniels found roadblocks when it came to securing money for new projects, and has had to independently finance all of his films— including his most recent, The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
"Studios never understood me. Even after the success of Empire and The Butler, I still had to independently find money for [The United States vs. Billie Holiday] because they did not want to finance this movie as they did not want to finance The Butler, as they did not want to finance Precious," he says.
The new film, which streams on Hulu on Feb. 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, who started to surveil her.
"Once I found out that the government hounded her for that song, I had to tell the story," says Daniels. "Someone told me that they're even doing it to rappers now. They hound them until they find something. The cops. It's fascinating."
One way that the government harassed Holiday was by focusing on her heroin addiction. Like many entertainers of the time, she 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 the opioids, right now. Right now, now that white people are doing opioids, it's a disease. But back with Billie, no, it was a crime,” says Daniels. “Systemic racism. It's an aerosol. We can't see it. You know, it's just in the air. I love this new generation because what's happening now is you guys have brought it to the forefront of what's happening and there is no denying it."
Continuing to push for more representation in Hollywood has always been something Daniels naturally embodied. He routinely casts 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’s Ball and The Woodsman. Still, creating more inclusive environments often comes with pushback from studios, who reject new hires that don’t have the experience, aren’t in a union or have reputations that precede them.
"I had to fight to get John Singleton to direct an episode of Empire," Daniels tells Yahoo Entertainment. "What happens is that they label you as difficult, and then sometimes it seeps into our own community that he is."
That resistance doesn’t deter Daniels, who has seen his art shift the conversation. He believes 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 and Insecure.
Daniels says that pushing for more Black leadership behind the scenes will be the ultimate sign of racial progress in Hollywood.
"Until we have Black studio heads that are at the CEO level that are saying, 'OK, that hot sauce goes on the collard greens,'" says Daniels. "Until you understand that the hot sauce goes on the collard greens, you're never going to be able to understand Lee Daniels, or you'll never be able to understand the importance of Spike Lee or Ava DuVernay."
— Produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by John Santo
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