Lee Daniels (1959- ), a US film-maker, is one of the top Black directors in Hollywood. He makes cringetastic films about Blacks that are well-received by Whites. So far, he is best known for:
- 2001: “Monster’s Ball”: producer
- 2009: “Precious”: director, producer
- 2013: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”: director
- 2015: “Empire” (television series): co-creator, director, writer.
Danny Strong, the writer of “The Butler”, is Daniels’s co-creator on “Empire”. Strong came up with the idea for “Empire” while listening to a rap song. “Empire” is like a Black “Dallas” (1978-1991).
Actors that Daniels likes to use: Terrence Howard, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Gabourey Sidibe, Macy Gray, Lenny Kravitz, Mo’Nique, John Cusack and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
The great thing about Lee Daniels is that he can direct and produce serious Black dramas that are hits, ones that make millions and win awards at the same time.
The terrible thing about Lee Daniels is that his stories push well-worn stereotypes: Jezebel, Sapphire, Black Brute, Welfare Queen, drug dealer, rapper, servant. They confirm rather than challenge White racism, especially the idea of Black pathologies. Yet Daniels has no trouble challenging Black homophobia (and does it well).
His casting of female characters seems to be informed by colourism. Functional interracial and same-sex relationships seem more common than functional straight, Black ones. (Daniels’s boyfriend is White.)
Is Daniels a sell-out? In a Don Lemon interview on CNN in 2015:
Lee Daniels: This is not just show. It’s show business and you gotta play ball. I don’t like calling the race card. I don’t believe in it, because if I buy into it then it becomes “real”. If I knew what I knew when I was 21, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now.
Don Lemon: Some people call that selling out.
Lee Daniels: I guess I’m a sell out then. Call it what it is, but I’m not going to not work, not going to not tell my truth, not going to not call people on their bull. Call it what it is. And see you in theaters.
His truth: Daniel presents people of colour the same way some White liberals do, like in “The Wire” (2002-2008): they go to great pains to be realistic, they give their characters an inner life, moral complexity, human dignity, all of that, but they are still stereotypes, just fleshed-out ones – what I call stereotyped realism.
For example, his two lead characters in “Empire” come from the same place he does: the Black ghettos of Philadelphia. Yet, unlike him, they act to stereotype: one dealt drugs, served time in prison and acts like a “hoodrat”, while the other was a rapper and is a heartless killer.
On the other hand, there are realistic touches that come from his own life. The apartment in “Precious”, for example, is based on his boyhood home. The scene in “Empire” where Jamal’s father throws him in the trash as a little boy for wearing his mother’s scarf and high-heel shoes – is something Daniels lived.