As our coverage of the SXSW Film Festival continues, it was somewhat fitting for Lee Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Empire) to arrive without a speech prepared as a keynote speaker Sunday morning. Heck, even the big boy’s/girl’s in the biz have to ‘wing it’ some days. Shooting somewhat from the hip using his smooth and brilliant comedic timing, Daniels chatted about a wide range of things from Prince to the current President of the United States. But what captivated the audience most, was what he said about his childhood and growing up as a survivor of the AIDS crisis in Hollywood.
“We are in difficult times”, he said about the new Trump administration. “This man is where he is – 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.”
Daniels hinted that the new Trump era will be good for the overall health and growth of the creative community. “I think some of the best art, literature, writing will come out of all this [The recent election] I couldn’t sleep, but I wrote some of the best work I have ever done. I was in pain.”
Bringing it closer to home, Daniels shared personal struggles he has endeared over the course of his career talking about his abusive father and ‘tough as nails’ grandmother. Daniels, who is openly gay, also talked about basing his EMPIRE character Cookie Lyon on her.
With some ‘tough love’ words his grandmother told him: “You’re a faggot, black and life isn’t going to easy”, Daniels shared how it was a miracle he survived after coming to LA during the AIDS crisis while watching many of his friends die and getting hooked on drugs himself. “I just can’t figure it out [how I survived]”.
What surely inspired the packed audience of emerging Hollywood creatives and ‘hustlers’ in the business doing whatever it takes to survive before their first break, Daniels talked about his job at a nursing company. “It was no different than pimping.”, which sparked laughter in the crowd. “I went from making a few hundred dollars a week to a million dollars..It was crazy”, he said.
After spotting ‘Precious’ star Gabourey Sidibe among the crowd, He brought her to the stage and joked about how she was upset at Daniels for not casting her in more episodes of his ‘Empire’
Daniels shared in his closing statements about his grateful appreciation for the business by being much more humble these days with all his success. “I’m a vessel here to pass things on to people better than me”. He said
Photo of Lee Daniels By SXSW