Lee Daniels, producer of “Monster’s Ball,” director of “Precious” and “The Butler” as well as co-creator of Fox’s hit television series, ”Empire,” gave an inspiring and personal keynote on Sunday. At first, an unprepared Daniels admitted he had not planned for this event at all, clutching chicken-scratch notes his assistant wrote for him. He then tossed the paper aside and gave one of the most powerful, unfiltered talks at SXSW this year.
Daniels shared with the audience an overview of, not only of his career, but his life, and how he eventually broke barriers as an African American, homosexual director in Hollywood. His eccentric, unfiltered character rubs some people in Hollywood the wrong way, yet helped him break into the industry. He describes his grandmother, the inspiration behind the “Empire” fan-favorite character Cookie, as a major influence in his life.
“My grandmother told me when I was four years old, she said, ‘You are a faggot and life is not going to be nice to you because you are black and you have to learn to take the knocks, get up off that floor and fight harder.’”
His childhood heavily shaped the man he is today. Growing up in a dangerous and impoverished neighborhood with an abusive father pushed him to escape that community in order to pursue his dreams. The road to success was filled with obstacles, from substance abuse to constant racism. He emphasized that success comes from passion and determination with nothing handed over freely, stressing that he paved his own way.
“I have to fight. No one owes me nothing,” Daniels said. “I believe no one in this room owes me anything, no one in Hollywood owes me anything. I owe me something. I am a 57-year-old man who watched his dad being called a nigger and I watched him cry, so I know firsthand that racism is real. It’s real in America, and it’s real in Hollywood, but I’m not going to let it define me or stop me. Because if you’re not going to do it for me, I’m going to do it for me.”
Gabourey Sidibe, the breakout star of Daniels' emotionally raw film, “Precious,” was spotted in the audience and joined him on stage for a hug, telling him with tears in her eyes that she will always look to him as a father. Daniels discusses how he often struggles to be a father to his own children at times, sheltering them from the prejudice of the world.
“We’re in such difficult times right now, you know?” Daniels said. “But [President Donald Trump], he is a reflection, a mirror of who we are. We’ve let this man get into office. We are responsible for it. He is our karma and I’m trying to explain to me son. It’s hard being a dad and it’s hard being a black man. It’s frightening.”
With President Trump as our new commander-in-chief, Daniels believes that this political climate will push artists to create an outpour of some of the most powerful films in history.
UPDATE March 15, 2 p.m.: The original article incorrectly stated Daniels was the director of "Monster's Ball" when, in fact, he produced the film.