'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' director reflects on the Jussie Smollett scandal and why he wants to keep telling the uncomfortable stories: "I know what it's like to be in pain."
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is Lee Daniels' fifth film as a director, his 10th as a producer — and his first without a long-standing crutch.
"This is my first film sober," says Daniels, 61, speaking via Zoom from his home in Beverly Hills in mid-January. Daniels quit using drugs after making his 2009 film, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, which earned six Oscar nominations, including best director and best picture, and he quit drinking four years ago, midway through his hit Fox series, Empire. "You can't anesthetize," he says of the impact of his new sobriety. "A glass of vodka is a nice cover, a blanket, a fur coat on you to take away all the insecurities that you have, to take away all of the nervousness, the fear. Sober, you're naked and you're doing your work."
The filmmaker is as busy as he's ever been, albeit working in an uncomfortably vulnerable new way. The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which premieres Feb. 26 on Hulu and which earned a Golden Globe nomination for its star, Andra Day, portrays the jazz singer as a complicated godmother of the civil rights movement, pushing to perform her anti-lynching anthem, "Strange Fruit," dogged by the FBI, which used her heroin addiction to prosecute her, and surrounded by lovers with sometimes questionable intentions. "When you think of Billie Holiday, you think of this brilliant, tortured jazz singer that happened to have been a drug addict," Daniels says. "Before there was a civil rights movement, there was Billie Holiday and 'Strange Fruit.' The government saw that song as a threat, and she was a target."
Daniels also produced the Idris Elba movie Concrete Cowboy, which Netflix will release later this year, and his company, Lee Daniels Entertainment, is making a slew of television under Daniels' overall deal at Disney, including a Sammy Davis Jr. limited series for Hulu; a pilot called The Spook Who Sat by the Door, about the first Black spy in the CIA, for FX; a Black Wonder Years reboot and a Waiting to Exhale series for ABC; and the drama Our Kind of People for Fox. He has set up the sitcom Ms. Pat at BET+, and discovered its writer, Brooklyn playwright Jordan E. Cooper, at a show at New York's Public Theater.
"With the success of Empire, he has a seat at the table now and wants to open that door for up-and-coming diverse voices," says Marc Velez, president of television at Lee Daniels Entertainment. "He's got great taste, and he can tap into the zeitgeist before all of us see it."
Daniels found time to direct a feature for the first time since The Butler in 2013, he says, partly because Empire and its spinoff, Star, have ended. Another planned Empire spinoff featuring Taraji P. Henson's character has been shelved, he says. "It's time to move on," Daniels says. "We did it with Empire. We did it. We did it. We did it. A lot of things are happening because of Empire. We forget that it changed the way the white world looked at Black people. People say they want the next Empire. Well, there's never going to be another Empire."
Early on, Empire was a ratings juggernaut, one of the last true watercooler shows on network TV. But in its final seasons, ratings had begun to flag and Empire was dogged by scandal when Jussie Smollett, who had played a role hailed as groundbreaking for its positive depiction of a Black gay man on television, was indicted for allegedly staging a fake hate-crime assault. Daniels had been among the first to voice his support for Smollett after the actor made the report, and when police alleged it was fake, he said he was uncertain what really happened, telling New York magazine in 2019: "I can't judge him. That's only for the fucking lady or man with that black robe and God." Daniels declines to say whether he is still in touch with Smollett. "It was very painful," he says of the scandal. "It's still a very painful situation to even talk about now, because I love him. For me, it's unresolved."
In making a film about Billie Holiday, Daniels was revisiting a subject that had enraptured him as a 13-year-old Black gay boy in Philadelphia when he saw the 1972 biopic of the singer, Lady Sings the Blues, for which Diana Ross received a best actress Oscar nomination. Among the first calls he made on the project was to Motown record label founder Berry Gordy, who produced Lady Sings the Blues, to ask his blessing to tackle Holiday — and he got it. But where that film romanticized Holiday's love life, with Billy Dee Williams as her fourth husband and road manager, Louis McKay, Daniels' take, which was adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks from a portion of Johann Hari's 2015 book about the war on drugs, Chasing the Scream, would show Holiday's life in all its messiness. The demanding role is Day's first major acting part, and both she and Daniels were skeptical about her signing on to the project. "I didn't want to do it and he didn't want me to do it," Day says, describing their first meeting, at the Soho House in West Hollywood. "We're both sitting in a meeting that our managers set up, and neither of us thinks we should be here. We bonded over that. We had a mutual healthy fear of just not wanting to put a stain on her legacy."
After watching an iPhone video of Day working with an acting coach, Daniels was won over, but Jordan Fudge, whose New Slate Ventures was financing the film, was still wary. Before Fudge agreed to produce, Daniels had him, Day and Trevante Rhodes, who plays a federal agent in the film, over to his house to watch Lady Sings the Blues. "I kept looking over at Andra and then back up at Diana Ross on the screen, wondering how in the world Lee was going to reinvent this timeless icon," Fudge says. "When I showed up on set for the first day of shooting, I couldn't believe that the innocent Andra Day who had said grace over the takeout months before was now this rail-thin, chain-smoking, streetwise superstar doing a scene robbing a Fifth Avenue jewelry store with her female lover. … Lee is a genius for his instinctive ability to recognize and nurture an actor's talent, and then push them every take to give exactly whatever it was he saw in them on an elemental level."
Before the pandemic, Paramount was slated to release The United States vs. Billie Holiday theatrically; in December, with any prospect of a near-term theatrical release looking slim and most U.S. theaters still closed because of COVID-19, the film sold to Hulu in an eight-figure deal. For Daniels, waiting for theaters to open would have meant missing a moment. "When I do a movie, it's like an aerosol," Daniels says. "It's in the air. I breathe it. What's drawing me to Billie, outside of my personal connection to her? What is drawing me to this story? It was certainly before George Floyd. It was before the news at the Capitol. When the unmentionable [Donald Trump] came into office, there was just this cloud. It felt like COVID was coming for us before it even came. This is a call to arms, this movie, because Billie really took on the government. I think that that's what we needed to do to get [Trump] out."
Daniels, whose father was a police officer killed on the job when he was 15, moved to L.A. in the early 1980s and founded a nursing company that specialized in HIV and AIDS patients. He sold that company and started working in casting and managing — an early job was as a casting assistant on Purple Rain. As he was making that career transition in the early '80s, Daniels met Cynthia Robinson Oredugba, who had been the first Black female agent at William Morris, at a party and she began advising him. "He had a vision," Oredugba says. "He had direction. For an African American man at that time, you could see the difficulty or you could see the opportunities. And he saw the opportunities."
From the first film he produced, 2001's Monster's Ball, which made Halle Berry the first Black woman to win an Oscar for best actress, Daniels has embraced complexity, particularly in female characters. "Although he's been widely celebrated as a filmmaker, you have some people that are rubbed the wrong way about 'Oh, you know, he's telling Black stories of women getting beat,' " says Day. "That's how I want the story, though. I want it raw. He was a pioneer of this. He was doing it at a time when some people didn't understand it. I get so exhausted as a Black person, that when I see people telling our stories, it's, 'How do we clean it up? How do we sugarcoat it? How do we make our leaders look flawless?' A part of our triumph and our resilience is telling our stories in their entirety. Billie Holiday did not have a squeaky-clean life."
Daniels' candor has long endeared him to his collaborators, and it is part, he believes, of how he reaches his actors. "I know what it's like to be in pain," Daniels says. "I know addiction. I know it well. You're uncomfortable in your skin … Showing your vulnerability to your crew and to your actors makes them feel at ease that they can just give you their soul, because I'm just baring my soul to you. If you judge me, you judge me."
Daniels' work has pushed boundaries of taste and propriety. Among his career's many eyebrow-raising moments is a scene in his 2012 film The Paperboy in which Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron. As cultural standards around issues like race, gender and sexuality and the language we use to talk about them are shifting, Daniels isn't always sure where he ought to land. Asked if one of his creative decisions, having Henson deliver a gay slur in the 2015 Empire pilot, would fly in 2021, he hesitates. "I got a lot of push-back from the studio and the network to not say it," Daniels says. "But I thought it was important because I was tired of being called it. I wanted America to hear it. I don't think that we're in that space anymore. I think we're going into a space of 'Pull it back, pull it all the way back.' I think maybe in another 15 years or 20 years, we'll be able to explore words like that."
Along with Daniels' sobriety have come other changes, including a new caution when he speaks. Previously unfiltered by Hollywood standards, Daniels once settled a lawsuit with Sean Penn over an offhand comment he made to this magazine. "This whole space that we're in makes me monitor my every word with you," Daniels says. "That's never been the case before."
Giving up alcohol brought new fears about his creativity. "I didn't want to direct sober," he says. "I was scared. I didn't know whether I could direct without at least a little liquor in me."
Daniels lives with his longtime partner, stylist Jahil Fisher; his two children are grown and out of the house. "I've seen a lot of maturity in him in the last decade," says producer Tucker Tooley, who has known Daniels since the late '90s, and who produced The United States vs. Billie Holiday and Concrete Cowboy with him. "Initially, with Precious, and before and after even a little bit, he was hit with the freight train of sudden success as a filmmaker. His energy and his passion and his humor, all that hasn't changed. But he's got a much, much better handle on where he is in his life, certainly with regard to being sober. It's a big confidence boost for him to finish a film that way and come out the other side and feel good about it all."
Daniels spent some of the pandemic watching the kind of feel-good movies he rarely makes himself, with the exception of The Butler, which grossed $177 million worldwide off a $30 million budget. Among them were Tyler Perry's films, which he had never seen. "My mother always was telling me, 'Why can't you make movies like Tyler Perry?' " he says. "I watched the Madea film. I broke out in tears. I called [Perry]. I said, 'Oh my God, this is making me feel so good right now.' "
He is weighing whether his next film ought to be a Black version of The Exorcist or a Black version of Terms of Endearment. "I also really want to do a superhero film," Daniels says. "What is a Lee Daniels superhero movie? What does that look like? It looks like a very grounded, real, situational superhero, whether it's three Black girls, a gay boy, a gender-fluid superhero."
Nearly 40 years after he started in Hollywood, the industry is in some ways finally catching up with Daniels, in its movement toward more inclusion and a broader range of storytelling. "Hollywood has come a long way since I've been here," Daniels says. "Our stories aren't penned or directed with the lens of a white person. We have some ways to go, but I'm really proud about where we are right now. I'm proud about what I've done and been a part of in the changing of it."
This story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.