SXSW: Lee Daniels speaks on journey to Hollywood

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Photo Credit: Zoe Fu | Daily Texan Staff

Director Lee Daniels spent time in front of the cameras rather than behind them on Sunday morning, opening up about his childhood and inspirations.

Raised in Southwest Philadelphia, Daniels said he grew up in the projects where he was surrounded by poverty and grief.

“I didn’t know what poverty was because when you’re in it, you don’t know anything else but it,” Daniels said.  “You see friends killed in front of you at a very young age, and that’s the American I know.”

Around age 8 or 9, Daniels said he discovered his sexuality. With the possibility of losing his life, he had to keep it a secret.

Along that same time, Daniels’ directorial skills began peeking through. After reading Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, he said he had his family and neighbors act as the characters.

“I was sort of telling them ‘You say it that way, you say it this way,’ Daniels said. “I was directing.”

But not everybody was a fan of his interest in theater. Daniels said his father, a police officer killed in the line of duty when Daniels was 12, was embarrassed by his son’s differences. Once when Daniels questioned why his father let another officer talk down to him after being pulled over, Daniels said his father punched him.

“He was trying to make a man out of me because he knew it was a hard world,” Daniels said. “I understood that his father beat him, and his father’s father tied him to a tree, and his father’s father’s father was a slave, and we were living in America in the 60s.”

After his father’s death, Daniels explored theater and the arts more in depth. Eventually, Daniels said he left his hometown for Los Angeles where he began his own nursing agency and faced depression.

“No one wanted to take on people with AIDs,” Daniels said. “I was the first person under contract with AIDS project L.A. where our nurses were going in and taking care of people at home.”

Realizing he wanted to pursue directing full time, Daniels sold his company, became a PA at Warner Bros., and left to manage actors and actresses.

“I wanted to find work for people who were disenfranchised,” Daniels said. “It was so frustrating to me to watch people like me unemployed.”

While answering a question on directing “Precious,” Daniels had an unexpected emotional reunion with star of the film, Gabourey Sidibe.

“Gabourey Sidibe is my hero,” Daniels said. “I love you, Gabby.”

To conclude his talk, Daniels called upon audience members and creators to work hard for what they want without letting entitlement or barriers stand in the way.

“Nobody in this room owes me anything, nobody in Hollywood owes me anything – I owe me something,” Daniels said. “I know firsthand that racism is real, but I’m not going to let it define me or stop me.”