Lee Daniels: The artist and the man
By Marie Carrie Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Started from the bottom now we here!” while rapper Drake wrote these lines, Lee Daniels, the critically acclaimed director of The Butler could just as easily have penned this quote himself.
While Daniels is famous for producing and/or directing blockbuster hits such as: Monsters Ball, The Woodsman, Shadowboxer, Precious, and of course, The Butler, his personal story of triumph is oscar-worthy in and of itself.
On Feb. 15, Lee Daniels was the featured speaker at the 14th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Gala sponsored by the City of Lauderhill and the MLK Task Force Committee.
During his one hour keynote address, Daniels was open and candid about the personal struggles that preceded his public accomplishments.
The oldest of five siblings, Daniels grew up on the mean streets of West Philadelphia. He was the product of the extreme poverty and drug culture that pervaded the area.
“I’m from the projects and at that time, the projects meant life or death everyday,” says Daniels.
When Lee was 16 his father, a policeman, was killed in the line of duty. While the loss devastated Daniels, his feelings toward the elder Daniels remained ambigious.
“When I was 5 years old, he put me in the trash can and he told me I was not going to be anything. ‘You are an embarassment to me. You are nothing,” remembers Daniels.
The incident to which Lee refers began when the youngster, a mere five-years -old, jovially pranced down the steps of his family’s two story home wearing his mother’s red high-heel shoes. At the time his father was involved in a card game with some friends.
Upon seeing his son dressed in his wife’s shoes, the elder Daniels lost it and pounced on the young boy in an effort to teach him a lesson he would remember for the rest of his life. He was successful. Although Daniels did remember the incident for the rest of his life, it did not have the desired effect his Dad sought.
The keynote address felt more like a personal conversation as Lee vividly shared details about his journey towards acceptance of not only his sexuality but his amazing talent.
On the historic night in 2004 when Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress, Daniels was at home high on crack, feeling undeserving and un-worthy of such an honor and accolade.
In fact, Daniels’ production company was responsible for not only casting Berry but for producing and making the award-winning movie possible.
But despite his success, the words of his father continued to ring in his ears and tell him he was nothing.
“I didn’t think that I deserved to be there because I was told when I was five that I was nothing and that I would be nothing.”
After Monster’s Ball’s big win, it may be expected that the movie offers came pouring in. NOT. In fact, Daniels would have to continue to “hit the streets” to get his projects to the big screen.
All of his films, including The Butler, made it to theaters as a result of Daniels employing the hustling skills he learned on the mean streets of Philly; studied at the knee of his drug dealing relatives and mastered as a “pimp” of nurses during his stunt as a successful owner/operator of a nursing agency in Hollywood, Ca. during the 80’s.
At a time when the AIDS epidemic was at its introduction and zenith, Daniels used his exceptional marketing and directing skills to catapult his agency to the top of the field in providing quality care to those affected by the deadly virus.
“No one knew what to do with it. No one wanted to touch it. But my girls went in. They knew how to love you and take care of it,” Daniels reflected.
Upon selling his highly successful firm for two million dollars, Daniels accepted a position with Warner Brothers as the Head of Minority Talent. The materialization of this position was a direct result of his work with Prince (yes the Prince) on his epic movie Purple Rain. Lee was responsible for the outstanding casting of such stars as Clarence Williams III in the role of Prince’s father.
While the new position afforded him the opportunity to travel the world and observe some of the best talent in the game, Daniels was unsatisfied with the lack of quality roles Hollywood had available for actors of all hues.
“I said I can’t do this no more. I’m making $65,000 just to put on a suit. Ya’ll aren’t really making any minority movies.”
After leaving Warner Bros., Daniels decided to open his own casting agency and personally managed talent such as Morgan Freeman and Loretta De-vine.
But according to Lee, “I couldn’t get them work. The work I wanted to get them. They (Hollywood) wanted them to play drug dealers and hoes.” Daniels went on to say, “How could I ask these brillant thespians to step into that place?”
And this revelation prompted Daniels to open his own production company and in 2001 Monster’s Ball became a reality.
“Ya’ll ain’t gone help me Hollywood. OK. I got this.” Daniels recruited Halle Berry for his movie idea about an interractial relationship. And utilizing his hustling skills, he secured the money necessary to get it to the big screen.
While Daniels’ professional life was proceeding according to script, his personal life was on the cutting room floor.
Lee was a full fledge crack addict when his brother called him with a life-changing request.
“Lenny, I need your help. My wife is a crack addict and we’re having twins and I need for you to take care of them because I am going to jail for life.”
Amidst great personal reluctance, Lee took custody of the crack-affected children while still battling his own addiction to the deadly drug.
Ironically, it was this altrusitic move that finally enabled Daniels to conquer his addiction. According to Lee, “(After leaving the babies home alone one day) I went down the street to the dealer and as I was about to go in his house, God told me ‘Go back to your kids’ and I have been sober ever since.”
Daniels remains drug free and his professional life continues to take him to greater and greater heights. He is currently working on a television series that will hit the small screen later this year.
And although The Butler was not recognized at this year’s Oscar nominations, Daniels is non-plussed by the slight. His response, “There are many towns across America, like this one, that are full of warm, beautiful Americans that really rooted for The Butler and that is my Oscar.”
The City of Lauderhill and the MLK Task Force did an out-standing job in choosing Lee Daniels as their culminating speaker. His message of hope and resilence resonates with youth and adults alike.
In fact, Lauderhill Mayor Richard Kaplan said it best when he stated, “Lee Daniels is a person people in the community can aspire to become like.”