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“Some of the best films and best literature will come from the Trump administration,” he said Sunday during an off-the-cuff and often emotional keynote panel at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
“We’re in such difficult times right now,” added Daniels, noting that Trump “is a reflection of who we are. He is a mirror of who we are, he is our karma. I’m trying to explain that to my son, and it’s hard to be a black dad. It’s frightening.”
Daniels, known for the Oscar-nominated film Precious and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, admitted at the start of the presentation that he didn’t prepare a speech ahead of time and instead would be going off of talking points drawn up by his publicist.
During the resulting talk, Daniels said he doesn’t understand the #OscarsSoWhite hullabaloo because “I know racism is real, but I’m not going to let it stop me or define me.” He continued: “We’ve created a generation where you feel entitled, but no one owes me anything — I only did Empire to make some money for once — no one in Hollywood owes me anything. I owe me something.”
Daniels spent much of the address detailing his path to Hollywood, explaining how his upbringing in “the ghetto” of Philadelphia shaped his projects, including Empire. He described his family as “a family of drug dealers,” but said, “I was too pussy to sell drugs.” He said his childhood showed him the fragility of life at a young age: “I know what it’s like to watch friends dodge bullets, literally.”
Daniels, who is gay, said that he learned that he was different from a young age. “I learned that I like men, but I knew if I expressed that difference early on, it would get me killed.” His father, a boxer and a cop who died in the line of duty, tried to ”make a man out of [him]” and would physically beat him. When his dad died, Daniels ventured into the world of theater and took on various jobs. Then, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s happened, and suddenly ”everyone around me was dying again,” he said, admitting that during that time he turned to drugs. He ultimately landed a gig helping with casting and producing on Prince’s Purple Rain.
The experience encouraged him to create roles for black actors. “Why are we playing maids? I got incredibly embarrassed admitting to these actors that there were no roles for them,” he added. Daniels decided to venture out on his own with projects including Empire and his newest show, Star.
After the ratings success of Empire, Daniels was surprised when Star premiered to a smaller but still-solid 6.73 million viewers. “I got the Star numbers and I’m, like, freaking out and I’m, like, ‘Wait a minute — these Star numbers don’t equate to the Empire numbers,’” he recalled. He called Oprah Winfrey and remembers her saying, “Petulant child. You spoiled child. Don’t you understand that Michael Jackson was upset that he did 10 million as opposed to 20 million for Thriller? He changed the landscape for music, and chasing that rabbit is not a good thing. You have a good show. Your numbers are solid. Welcome to the real world.”
The talk culminated in an emotional reunion between Daniels and his Precious and Empire star Gabourey Sidibe, who was in the audience. Before she joined him onstage, the director said, “I’m going to get emotional! How am I doing?” To which the actress replied, “You’re doing great without the college,” referencing his earlier comments that he didn’t attend college.
Daniels’ future projects include the biopic Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said? starring Winfrey and Eddie Murphy, with Jay Z producing.
SXSW runs through March 19.
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