Trace Daniels’ path from West Philly to his the red-hot center of Hollywood. Learn how he conquered both the independent and mainstream sides of Hollywood, directing and producing critical darlings like The Butler and Empire.
- Here we go, and action.
- [Carlos] Even as a child,
Lee Daniels knew he was different from the other kids.
So, after navigating the rough streets of Philadelphia,
and the stern rule of a disapproving father,
Lee moved west.
Once there, he found a world
laced with both opportunity and mortal struggle.
So how did this gay black man
shatter stereotypes in Hollywood?
- Right here, now! Paused, freeze!
- [Carlos] And overcome his own trauma
to build a distinguished career
that not only brought him prestige and success,
but created a cultural phenomenon.
And how did his vision translate into breaking big?
What makes people successful?
What are the unexpected turns in life
that propel people to greatness?
I'm Carlos Watson, editor of OZY.
I'm out to uncover the real secrets behind Breaking Big.
- Here we go!
No anticipation, and action!
Quickly! Move in.
Double over and fall on the floor.
- Where's the mark? - Fall on the floor.
- That's pretty cold light. - One more
One more. - She's in a--
- Here we go.
I dare to dream, and I never took no for an answer.
And I was told early on that I would be nothing,
and in my heart, I knew that I had to fight that.
That, circle that right there.
And I was gonna be somethin'.
- Take four. - Thank you.
What's your favorite of all the projects
you've ever gotten to do?
- I know that I've gotten awards and everything like that.
You probably wanna hear like Precious,
you wanna hear Butler, and Empire.
But for me, it's a play called Roaches.
Written by John Toles-Bay with Cuba Gooding Jr.
- Because why?
- Cause it was just about some boys that was in trouble.
Reminded me of me.
(upbeat jazzy music)
- [Carlos] For those who don't know your story,
- All right. -You grew up where?
- In west Philadelphia.
I've watched, as a kid,
kids get killed in the streets.
I've dodged bullets.
But even at five,
I knew that was not going to be my life.
- [Carlos] Where were your siblings?
You had four siblings--
- [Lee] I was the oldest of five.
- And so did they also think this is not me?
- They said I was different.
(playful jazzy music)
- I do remember Lee having interest
in the arts at a very young age.
- My first book I read, I was in second grade.
I went to the public library in Philadelphia.
I was led to the theatre section.
- He used to get these books, and he would give out scenes,
and we would do these plays.
- And I would tell 'em,
"Ah, do it like this, do it like this."
- [Leah] The neighbors on the block, our friends,
would watch and sometimes he would charge, too.
- [Carlos] Recognizing that passion so young,
and having limited resources,
Lee drew from what he knew, his family.
- I was interested in writing 'cause my dad wrote.
He wrote incredible poetry that I was fascinated by
and wanting to be like him, in that regard.
My dad was a cop.
He was six-four, a boxer,
and Muhammad Ali's bodyguard when he was in Philadelphia.
He sparred with Muhammad Ali.
Christmas came, and he had bought these boxing gloves.
He greased my face up,
and he put these boxing gloves on me and my brother,
who was three years younger than me.
And I just threw them down and played with the Barbie dolls.
- Lee would play with paper dolls,
he would make me the best paper dolls ever.
- [Carlos] Your father, what did you take from him?
- I think he tried to be a good man.
I think that I was a disappointment to him.
He's violent, very violent.
- [Carlos] Towards you? - Uh huh.
- Did he regret it, do you think?
It's hard enough, my dad said, to be black.
Why do you wanna be gay on top of that?
Why do you wanna live a life that's hard?
- The child who's gay can grow up with a parent
who is homophobic,
and set you on the course for failure
for the rest of your life, questioning your own worth.
Or, you could pursue some of those differences.
Some of the negative experiences we have
lead to our greatest successes.
- [Carlos] Exposed to largely violence and rejection
from his father, Lee looked elsewhere for the support
and encouragement that he needed.
You have an interesting family tree.
- I do! - Yeah.
- And the women were dynamic and they were powerful.
- Who was first among them?
- My grandmother.
She was my everything.
- Grace H. Daniels was a very tough woman.
She had one leg,
but that didn't stop her from whipping our asses.
- Very early on she said, "You know, you're a faggot."
And I said, "What's that?"
She says, "You'll find out."
"But always be honest, continue to stay the course,
"'cause you also have been anointed."
And I knew what it meant.
- [Carlos] How old were you?
- [Lee] Eight.
- [Carlos] Struggling to process the conflicting
emotions and signals from his family,
Lee was not prepared for the loss
that he would experience as a teenager.
- [Lee] We were in the basement,
and I heard this guttural howl from my mother,
and she screamed, "Lenny",
and I knew that that meant death.
It was a hold up. They shot him in the head.
I think you die how you live, and he believed in violence.
- My father was 34 when he passed.
And my mother raised five kids on her own with no help.
- She is really a hero.
She's my hero.
- [Leah] My mother always encouraged
whatever creativity he had.
- Well, I was watching all of the black exploitation films...
like Lady Sings The Blues, which really changed my life.
Because what I saw was me.
I saw the streets of Philadelphia.
I saw black people, but I saw them in a glamorous state,
and my mind started racing. I wanna do that.
- [Carlos] When you head off to college,
you don't study film.
- No, I don't dare,
'cause I don't know that there is a place to study film.
I went off to become what my dad wanted me to become,
which was a lawyer, 'cause he wanted to be a lawyer,
but he settled for policeman.
Then I met a girl, and I thought I fell in love.
She said, "I think you're gay."
And I said, "I think you're right."
but I had suppressed it because, you know,
my dad told me that "If you embarrass me, I will kill you."
And I believed, even after he died,
he was coming back from the gave for me,
so that's how much fear it was.
I told her I'm gonna go to Hollywood,
I'm gonna write, I want to direct.
And she gave me $7, and I had a bus ticket,
and I came to Hollywood.
- [Carlos] Like so many young people before him,
Lee dropped out of college and headed west
to chase his dreams in show business.
- [Lee] I got off the bus, and I was homeless.
- [Carlos] Did you sleep on the streets?
- [Lee] I was sleeping on the streets. - [Carlos] Okay.
- I wanted off the streets,
so I ended up the receptionist at this nursing agency,
and it evolved into a management position
'cause I was really good on the phone.
And then the big faith, something that changed my life
was saying I don't wanna work for the man.
So, I said I'm gonna open my own nursing agency,
from my home.
- I knew nothing of nursing either. - No.
So I stole four of their nurses.
Before I knew it, I had about 100 nurses,
and I had made an enormous amount of money.
- I remember going to visit him in L.A.
To someone, that's you know, 17, 18 years old,
and your brother is doing all this,
you're, like, he's really successful.
It was weird the first time I saw him interacting
with other gay guys, and all these people
that he had befriended, that were sorta like his family.
I could see he was at ease, this was who he was.
- And then, AIDS hit.
- Lee and I talked quite often about how
we both ended up in Hollywood just as AIDS
had started to eviscerate our creative community,
and the pain of watching
everyone we know die.
- My lovers were dying around me.
My best friends were dying around me.
For me, it was a matter of time that I was gonna die.
So I was gonna go into bathhouses
and go into seedy places.
- [Carlos] You were pursuing death.
- I didn't wanna be around.
- And you never contracted?
- No. - How?
- I don't know, I don't know.
To see death over and over and over and over again,
and to see friends,
and to see their families not embrace them,
'cause that wasn't just about dying.
Their families weren't taking them in.
It was a very dark time. We became a family.
So I said, "Let me go out and do drugs."
- [Carlos] Did drugs help you?
- [Lee] It helped ease my pain.
- Lee Daniels arrived to Hollywood with a hope and a dream,
and probably because Lee is a black gay male,
he's used to riding waves.
He understands keenly, you know,
that life is full of ups and downs
and that the ups prepare you for the downs and vice versa.
It's learning how to be resilient,
knowing how to be purposeful, knowing how not to break
and to always keep moving forward.
- [Carlos] In the midst of this national epidemic,
and Lee's own impending downward spiral,
a chance encounter would re-ignite
Lee's lifelong desire for storytelling.
How do you finally actually get into entertainment?
- So, I was 24, and there is a guy that comes in
to the nursing office to pay for his father,
but they didn't know I was black.
He was befuddled.
He says, "You're taking care of my father?"
And I go, "Well I'm not taking care of your father,
but it's my company."
Well the gig was up.
I had my Newport in my mouth you know--
He was fascinated by it.
He said, "What do you really wanna do?"
And I said, "I really wanna get into show business."
And he said, "Well, I'm a producer."
I said, "How do I do it? What do I do?"
He said, "Do you wanna come work for me?"
And I go. "Okay."
He said, "You come to work on the set
- and you'll learn the business." - And I said, "Okay."
And I became a PA on the set of Warner Brothers.
And it was Purple Rain,
and I had my Newport and my Armani,
and my Porsche, and I went to work as a PA. (laughs)
- Did they know what to make of you?
No one knew what to make of me!
- [Carlos] What did they think--
- I didn't know what to make of me!
Prince liked me.
- [Carlos] Over the next few years,
Lee charmed and hustled his way deeper into Hollywood.
And after selling his nursing agency for north of $2,000,000,
Lee found his niche working in casting.
(beeping) ♪ Go
That was when the relationships he built with actors
would inspire the next phase of his career.
- I know the Lee Daniels who was a manager,
when I was an agent.
- [Lee] I had an eye for talent.
And I said, "I'm gonna find them jobs."
- [Carlos] You do well in it?
- Oh yeah.
I was in love with what it was that I did.
- [Hilary] Sometimes we would share clients.
Sometimes he would sign a client behind my back.
And we would fight like cats and dogs.
- I took no prisoners.
No was not an option for me.
And I was gonna make sure that they were working,
and so that really disrupted Hollywood
because there was nobody like me
that was gettin' people work.
- [Carlos] with a firm grasp on the Hollywood landscape,
Lee's family would once again come back into the picture,
and his life would take another major turn.
- My brother called me and he said,
"I'm gonna go to jail.
"My girlfriend's having kids and she don't want 'em,
Will you take them?"
I hung up on his ass and I was like, bye.
Sure enough, in Philadelphia, January 6th,
they were two days old.
My mother opened the door,
and the girl dropped two bassinets off (claps) and took off,
and my mom called me up and said,
"Listen, you either gonna come get these kids,
or I'm calling social services,"
And my partner really wanted them.
I didn't really want them.
And I was still on drugs.
When they were maybe 11 months old,
I was out to the drug man.
I walked two blocks down the street,
and realized that my kids were in the house,
and I had left them there.
I said, "Oh, what am I doing?"
- [Leah] I think my niece and nephew
was really the turning point.
I think when he decided that he was going to raise the kids
that he had to be there for the kids.
- [Lee] And that was the end.
- [Carlos] You've been better ever since.
I thought I was saving their lives,
and they really ended up saving mine.
- [Carlos] After getting a handle on his addiction,
and embracing his new role as a father,
Lee was back on track.
Clear with purpose, he would package
a script, director, and cast
for the studio Lionsgate,
and finally produce a film of his own.
- I put together a great group of actors that trusted me
and we were going to do a film called Monster's Ball
I was gonna direct.
But I was too afraid to.
- [Carlos] Why were you afraid?
- I knew how to work with actors,
but I didn't know anything about the techniques.
And I wasn't ready.
So I went off to the races, and I produced it.
- Transitioning from management to producing,
it was an easy transition for him.
He knew actors, he understood story.
It was bound to happen.
- [Carlos] Did you think it was going to be a hit?
I never think of things being hits.
But then, your first movie you hit it out the park
and you are responsible for the first African-American woman
winning an Oscar, ever.
I think that changed the trajectory of what it was.
That I knew for sure, this is my lane.
It gave me the confidence to inevitably direct Precious.
- He had Precious for a very, very long time.
I remember him making me read the book.
It was based on the novel Push.
And the writer didn't wanna give up those rights.
He had to ask and ask and ask. (laughs)
Lee doesn't get what he wants all the time,
sometimes it's a fight.
- When he wanted to make Precious,
a movie about a dysfunctional black, abusive family
and a teenager with AIDS and a baby,
that's an impossible movie to get made.
One financier believed in Lee's passion,
believed that this story, told through Lee's lens,
that the world would be capable of cherishing it
as it ultimately was.
- His ability to find human pathos, pain,
and also humor in people like Precious,
multi-faceted, not perfect, highly flawed like all of us,
is, you know, one of his great skills.
- When I came to Hollywood,
at first I was embarrassed about where I came from.
And it wasn't until I embraced my blackness,
that I thrived.
- Precious was just so well received in Cannes,
it had a standing ovation.
Like a fifteen minute standing ovation.
And he was so happy.
- The amazing thing about Precious was it got the awards
and it got the backing of Oprah
and Tyler Perry, and then got Lionsgate.
And you have to give him a lot of credit for that,
for finding a story
that most people would not have felt
merited that kind of attention.
Stories like that, that help people,
younger versions of himself,
see that maybe their stories aren't that different
and they aren't flawed people.
That maybe they do have something to share with the world.
- Lee is a world conqueror.
He conquered the world of independent film making,
with The Butler, he conquered
the world of commercial filmmaking in a big way,
and I think the next, you know,
bold frontier was television.
- [Carlos] When did you start to be interested in television?
- Well, Whitney Cummings had come into my house
who created a show called Two Broke Girls and she's like,
"Why are you getting all these people Oscars
and why don't you have money?"
And I go, "I do have money."
And she said "No, but real money."
And she told me how much she made, and I said, "Every week?"
she said, "Mm-hmm."
A lot of money.
So I said, "Okay."
- [Carlos] How did Empire come about?
Well, Danny and I, we loved King Lear,
and so we created King Lear out of my family.
Empire really was my life.
So, when my partner said "Let's make Empire a film."
I said, "No, I want that check every week."
But I didn't know that it was going to be
what it was going to be.
I mean, we were just trying to tell another story.
- It was so specific, which is really one of the things
that I always look for in a pitch.
- It brought the characters so to life
because you understood the battles
that those characters would have.
And I'm generally a slightly reserved executive,
but I stood up, which I never do,
I stood up in a meeting and said,
"If we can cast this right,
we've got something really special here."
- Taraji actually auditioned.
Terrence was there to read with her for her screen test.
And when you see those two together,
because of the chemistry that, you know, they have,
it was literally like watching the television show
come alive in front of you in that screen test room.
- That is why he's such an authentic storyteller.
These are real people that he creates, that he knows,
that he hears their dialogue speaking.
- I grew up with six to 10 women
that were Cookies in different variations.
Strong, formidable African-American women
that embraced me and empowered me
and told me the world was mine.
- They said it in a way
that your father was not able to say.
Okay, here we go.
Well they're there and they're standing...
- A lot of what they talked about in the pitch
was to be an out, gay man
in R&B and hip hop,
to try and change that narrative and make it inclusive.
- There are some parallels between Lucious Lyon
and my father, and there are parallels
between Jamal and Lee.
How there's the conflict,
how he doesn't understand the lifestyle,
and I think it was important for Lee to put the character in there,
because there wasn't a character like that on television.
(thuds) - Give me the half of it,
and then really give the other half...
I had people come up to me and say,
"Why you gotta portray black men like this?"
And that literally, they come up on me like that.
You have to be ready to be ridiculed for your beliefs
'cause it's not gonna be what everybody believes.
I speak for that face that you don't see.
- As a gay content creator,
none of his stories have particularly been
tied to gay identities or gay issues.
You know, he's very cleverly incorporated those story lines
into much bigger stories.
That's one of the things that's given
his career such longevity.
- Yeah, there yeah.
Yeah, come back there. Yeah, there you go.
Good, good, good, good.
- [Carlos] Why do you think Empire succeeded so well?
- Because I'm just telling the truth.
I gotta do the best I can to make sure
that I change your thoughts about black people,
about gay people.
That's why I'm so out.
Because I think it's so important to live in your truth
'cause I lied for so long.
- Okay. - Give me my hugs.
- [Lee] I try every morning to wake up,
be a good man, and I fall on my ass.
Damn, you know, what did I do that for?
And I realize I'm not perfect.
And my dad wasn't perfect.
And I've grown from the beginning of my journey,
and from being very angry to understanding,
and having empathy for him and forgiving him.
I am the man that I am because of my father.
I think that he would be very proud
of what it is that I've accomplished.
Can we see the one that I like?
Good, one more time, just like that.
It's great guys! Just like that!
- [Carlos] Working through a lifetime of pain
caused in part by his sexuality,
his relationship with his father,
and the staggering loss of life,
Lee has come to terms with all of it,
and when he imbued that truth into his work,
he found his real voice as a filmmaker.
- D cam record.
Right here. Now!
I stumbled into being successful.
I've stumbled into everything.
- Lee may say that he stumbled into success,
I feel he forced his way into success.
- I am a very proud sister because,
not only is he talented,
but he cares about the story that he tells.
- [Carlos] What's left for you to do?
- This gift is not mine.
And it's my obligation to pass it on to kids
that are too afraid to do what it is that I am doing.
That you can do it.
And if you're blessed,
maybe someone will recognize the work.
But does it make you happy?
Will it affect one life?
That's what the work is about. It's art.
- I'm a mom, I'm a journalist,
I'm a former Miss America,
and like millions of other American women,
I'm a survivor of sexual assault
and sexual harassment.
- There was all this publicity
surrounding the lawsuit with Fox.
- They told me that my career was gonna end
in the television business when it wasn't my choice.
- We knew what Ailes was capable of.
It was all out war.
I was directing Oprah on the set of The Butler,
and it was like a bad Lucy episode.
What are you doing?
- (laughs) - You're ruining the scene.
And Forest is like nudging me like, you know.
- I'm like, "What?" - (laughing)
And I go, "Oprah, what is the matter?"
She says, "Well, I haven't done laundry in awhile."
What do you mean you haven't done laundry?
And I'm screaming, the crew is like, you know?
And I realized that I was even in the situation
that I'm directing Oprah Winfrey.
I think of that as a blessing.