Lee Daniels’ SXSW keynote address Sunday morning encompassed everything from Donald Trump to Purple Rain, and even included the director doing his best Oprah Winfrey impersonation as he recalled the talk show queen dressing him down when he complained about ratings.
“Oprah said, ‘You petulant child…,’” Daniels said, imitating Winfrey’s reaction when he complained that his Star wasn’t getting the ratings of his Empire. “She said, ‘You still have solid numbers.’”
Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Empire) said he hadn’t prepared a speech for SXSW, and after hitting some publicist-provided talking points, started to improvise. The election of Trump has been anything but a plus for society, he said, though he found a silver lining.
“We’re in difficult times,” he said about the Trump era. “This man is where he is — he’s a reflection of who we are. He is our karma. I’m trying to explain this to my son. It’s hard to be a dad and hard to be a black dad.”
The ascent of Trump, however, will be a boon for the creative community, according to Daniels. “I think some of the best art, literature, writing will come out of this. [After the election] I couldn’t sleep, but I wrote some of the best work I have ever done. I was in pain.”
Daniels recalled being beaten by his father and being in danger growing up “different” — Daniels is gay — in West Philadelphia. He credited his tough no-holds-barred grandmother as a role model, and said he based Empire’s Cookie Lyon on her.
Quoting his grandmother, Daniels recalled her telling him: “‘You’re a faggot and black and life isn’t going to be easy.’” He said he had wanted to kill himself, and after moving to Los Angeles following a year of college, he ended up “on drugs” as the AIDS crisis went full throttle and killed many of his friends.
“It’s a miracle I don’t have HIV,” he said. “I can’t figure it out.”
After taking a job at a nursing service, he started his own company. “It’s no different than pimping,” he said to laughs. “You charge $25 for a nurse and give the nurse $15. I went from making a few hundred dollars a week to a million dollars. It’s crazy.”
Daniels recalled selling his company and becoming a P.A. on Purple Rain, though he said he doesn’t think he has an IMDb credit for it — he doesn’t.
“Warner Bros. would fire me, but then Prince would hire me back,” he said. “I had no filter. They were suits. I’d say, ‘No motherfucker…’ I had no idea because I hadn’t worked with anyone [in Hollywood] before.”
He recalled shopping Monster’s Ball around town even though nobody would take him seriously. He said he felt “proud” of his early producing work on that film, which earned Halle Berry an Oscar for Best Actress in 2001, and The Woodsman with Kevin Bacon, and later on his feature film directorials Precious, The Paperboy and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which he credits with paving the way to Empire.
“It was very hard [to get Empire], but I think it came off strong after The Butler. [Fox] was interested to see [what I had].”
An emotional moment today came when Daniels spotted Precious star Gabourey Sidibe sitting in the audience. He brought her to the stage, and the two bantered back and forth (Sidibe has a book coming out). Daniels joked that she was mad he “only had her in a few episodes of Empire.”
In closing, Daniels said that his ego is more in check these days. “I’m more humble now,” he said. “I know there are ups and downs. I know there are far better directors out there. I’m a vessel and I’m here to pass it on to people far better than me.”