Lee Daniels shares his own story of struggle

By Catie Hall
On February 14, 2014

Film producer and director Lee Daniels walked down the rows of seats yelling, "Hi, everybody! Hi!" His voice filled the Granite State Room while he marched, wearing casual jeans and a white dress shirt, to his spot at the podium. 

If his 200-member audience on Wednesday night expected to hear only about Daniels' movies or his upcoming TV show, they got more than they bargained for as Daniels painted the picture of his childhood, his fame and his home. Much like his movies, the true story of the night was one of triumph over adversity. 

 

* * *

 

Before titles, before fame, young Lee Daniels walked down the stairs, his small feet sliding inside his mother's heels. While his mother may have laughed - a sweet melody to a child's ears - his father did not. 

As he descended the staircase in his mother's shoes, his father picked him up. 

"You're trash," his father said, and he put the little boy in the garbage. 

His father was not the only person in his life that attacked Daniels.

"I was bullied on. I knew that I was a gay guy, real skinny. About half the size I am now," Daniels said. "Kids don't know what their sexuality is - four, five, or six - but you know that you are different. And I knew that other people knew. And so, kids were mean."

While Daniels' jokes were always met with cheers from the audience, when he spoke about the more serious times in his childhood, his voice carried across a silent room. His tone was matter-of-fact; there was a sense of lingering sorrow for that younger life.

"I blocked out that I had learned to hold my bowels and my urine from first grade through eighth grade because I was so afraid to go into the boys' bathroom," he said. "And run home after school because I was taunted everyday. My father was embarrassed about me being different, even though he didn't know what it was."

Daniels explained that he later made his movie "Precious" because "I needed to look at myself." He said he could relate to the story about the impoverished, abused character.

"I love that movie," Daniels said with a smile. "It's one of my favorites."

Just as Daniels found his own life related to "Precious," "The Butler" also helped Daniels understand his world and his father's.

"You are black," Daniels' father told him. "I don't think you understand what that means. You are gay and black. You will never make it. Never make it." 

"'The Butler' helped me understand him," Daniels said. "I understood why he was so angry-because he never looked a white man in the eyes. And he felt less-than. And for me, again, it was therapeutic for me because ... I forgave him for some of his meanness and why he treated me the way he did. He had it rougher than me. I come from a family of servants, who come from a family of servants, who come from a family of slaves."

Daniels paused for a moment, looking into the audience.

"Never make it. I showed him, didn't I?" The audience erupted in cheers and laughter.  

 

* * *

 

Though his father died when Daniels was young and he moved away from his childhood bullies, Daniels' adversities continued - this time, through his own fault.

Daniels said that his brother called him one night from jail. He was in prison for murder, and his wife was about to have twins. Daniels' brother wanted him to take care of the kids because his wife was on crack. 

Daniels told his mother on the phone that he had no desire to raise kids.

"Twins! They were crack babies!" Daniels said, an addict himself at the time. "I'm on crack! Let me get my high on." 

Daniels said he believed God was speaking to him, though, and his boyfriend made him take the kids in. 

"It's seriously the most beautiful experience of my life, raising these beautiful, beautiful kids, um, that I hate now," Daniels jokingly said, winning the audience's laughter once again. "I did love them then."

Just as Daniels did all night, he taught the audience about the struggles he went through and how he overcame them. One night, he said, his boyfriend had left their home. With his boyfriend gone, Daniels saw the twins, walked over them to get a "hit" of his drugs, and then got in his car and drove away.

"[I] realized that I had left my children at home," Daniels said. "I came back, and I was sober from that moment on. They saved my life." 

After Daniels overcame challenges of his own, he didn't stop challenging those around him, no matter how famous they were. 

"Like Mariah Carey never taking her make up off for anything," Daniels said. "Let me tell you something. That was rough in 'Precious.' Her hands were trembling in the little J.C. Penney's outfit that I was putting her in."

Daniels cast Oprah Winfrey in "The Butler." He was terrified because Winfrey had produced him for "Precious," and he said that Winfrey "hadn't acted in forever." When she arrived on stage, Winfrey yelled, "I'm here!" 

"So what you did is you sort of do the Dance of the Seven Veils," Daniels said, "and you trip them, sort of, and then [the actors are] yours. And then they're yours. It's a beautiful thing. [Winfrey] became vulnerable and fragile and then I felt very protective of her [even though she's so powerful]."

 

* * *

 

A sober, famous father, Daniels has no desire to keep his success to himself.

"I have a school that I work with in the Bronx called the 'Ghetto Film School' and I enjoy giving back because I think that there are very young filmmakers out there," Daniels said. "Nothing makes me happier than giving back. ... I'm here tonight because I love sharing my life experience with you guys."

As much as Daniels came to share his own experiences, he said he helped share the stories of millions of other people.

Daniels' 92-year-old cousin in Hawaii was the first African American pediatric surgeon, he said. When Daniels saw him, his cousin held Daniels' face.

"You told my story," his cousin said. "You told America's story. I'm so proud of you." 

Daniels said that was the only award he needed.

"I don't think that God gave me the gift. I think that it's not mine," he said. "I have to share my experience, you know, and hopefully I can inspire somebody out here. If I can just touch one soul, then I've done my job." 

Portsmouth resident Wallace Cooper saw "The Butler" before Daniels came to talk. Cooper is in his seventies and said he grew up in the Civil Rights-era. 

"The movie, I thought was very powerful," Cooper said. "It struck a lot of chords for me because ... I could relate to the attitude of the son [Louis Gaines]."  

During the Q-and-A, every audience member that spoke held the microphone to his or her lips and thanked him for his films. 

One audience member stood up and said, "I just wanted to say I appreciate your truthfulness and honesty; you're just such a beautiful person." 

"I think we're really lucky to have Lee Daniels," Associate Professor of English and Film Delia Konzett said before Daniels arrived. "While his 'Butler,' I think, is a very important movie, he also has done other important films, like 'Paperboy' and 'Shadowboxer'. He produced 'Monster's Ball.' And I think he's really one of the up-and-coming new filmmakers who deals not only with questions of race but questions of gender and sexuality, which are in all of his films, like 'Precious,' as well." 

The last question of the night: Do you have one lesson or piece of advice to impart to everyone here tonight?

Without hesitation, Daniels said, "Live in your truth. That we only have today.... Tomorrow's not promised. I know that sounds so-we've heard it, we've heard it, we've heard it. But we really only have today. This breath. Right here. Right now. And it's about embracing and loving yourself and living in your truth." 


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