“I gotta tell you, for the record, I’m bored with Hollywood people of color saying Hollywood owes you something,” Lee Daniels told CBS News in January. “Don’t nobody owe you nothing. I had to fight for everything, from my very first movie on.”
This perspective from Daniels is only a part of what makes him a disruptor. In both his film and TV work, Daniels tells the previously untold stories of the marginalized. With Precious, he followed a plus-size Harlem girl enduring physical and emotional abuse; while in The Butler he told the story of Cecil Gaines—played by Forest Whitaker and loosely based on the little-known true story of Eugene Allen—an African-American White House servant reflecting on his eventful 34-year tenure.
In Empire, Daniels presents a soap opera-style drama with an almost entirely black cast: Loretha “Cookie” Lyon is a powerful woman taking back her record label after a long prison term, while one of her sons copes with bipolar disorder and another reveals he’s gay. In tackling themes of mental illness, the LGBTQ community and incarceration, Daniels once again puts the under-represented at the forefront.
In Star, meanwhile, Daniels put Amiyah Scott in a key role, making her only the second trans person to play a trans character in a scripted American drama series. Scott plays Cotton Brown, daughter of Queen Latifah’s religious beauty-salon manager Carlotta, who wrestles with her daughter’s sexuality in light of her faith, while struggling to reconcile her deep love for her daughter. As always, there are no simple, pat solutions in Daniels’ world.
Aside from his clear passion for music—both Empire and Star are musical dramas—Daniels’ success is founded on the strength of great storytelling. While he may be creating an even platform for those who’ve previously been kept out of the spotlight, it’s also true that his projects are all-inclusive, telling universal stories for audiences all over the world.
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