Director/producer Lee Daniels gave an emotional keynote address to SXSW on Sunday, detailing how he grew up in a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia, how he learned to fend for himself, how he eventually attended college, only to leave early because he wanted to head to Hollywood.
He talked of living in the back of a church, staging plays and finally getting a full-time job at a nursing agency, where he worked the phones and used his “white voice.” Then he realized that he could set up his own nursing agency, so he did. And then he realized he wanted to fulfill his dream of working in Hollywood, so he sold the agency and got a P.A. job on a new project. That project just happened to be Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
The rest is history, as they say. He was pushy. He was honest. Prince liked him. Warner Bros., where he was working, didn’t. He was hired, fired, rehired. You get the idea. He spoke his mind and was honest. And he eventually rose to the ranks, so much so that he branched out and became the producer of “Monster’s Ball,” which went on to earn an Oscar for its star, Halle Berry.
He followed that up with various movies, including “Precious,” starring Gabourey Sidibe, and “The Paperboy,” starring Matthew McConaughey. He also has most recently started working in TV, with the hit shows “Empire.”
Along the way of telling his life story – and during his question-and-answer session afterward – Daniels made a few comments that might attract attention, notably that he didn’t quit understand the #oscarsowhite movement. He said that he didn’t think Hollywood owed him anything — and that he really owed himself something. But he added that he understood the racism, and wasn’t trying to deny it.
He also said that the Trump administration might be good for Hollywood, because it might spur creativity. And he revealed that he complained to Oprah Winfrey after the premiere of his latest series, “Star,” which didn’t have quite the audience numbers of “Empire.” She thought he was being a bit much, saying he was acting like “a petulant child” and that the show’s numbers were solid.
And then, in another emotional moment late in the session, Daniels was reuninted with his p “Precious” star, Sidibe, who had been sitting in the audience unannounced. He called her up on stage.
Daniels asked how he was doing, and she said he was doing okay for someone who didn’t finish college.