Why Lee Daniels Got Behind 'Pimp'

Pimp Still and inset of Lee Daniels-Getty-H 2018
Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment; Leon Bennett/FilmMagic

The producer of 'Empire' and 'Butler' director signed on as an executive producer on Christine Crokos's directorial debut, starring Keke Palmer as a lesbian pimp.

In 2009, before Empire and The Butler, Lee Daniels made a small little independent film about an overweight, illiterate and pregnant black girl who dreams of a better life.

The film, Precious, with its often painfully raw look at rape, incest and abuse, wasn't anyone's idea of an obvious commercial success. Precious looked likely to go the way of most challenging indie films — especially ones focused on the African-American experience — and be overlooked and quickly forgotten.

Then Oprah Winfrey saw it.

Shortly before he finished the film, Daniels invited Winfrey to a screening. She signed on as an executive producer and began to promote Precious at every opportunity.

The rest of the Precious story — winning the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival, scoring six Oscar nominations (and two wins), earning more than $60 million worldwide — is the stuff of indie film legend.

Now Daniels is taking on Winfrey's role with another small, gritty film about an African-American women in peril. Pimp, which Vertical Entertainment is bowing in the U.S. Friday, features Nickelodeon and Disney Channel star Keke Palmer playing against type as Wednesday, a lesbian pimp battling it out on the mean streets of New York. Shortly after finishing the film, director Christine Crokos screened it for Daniels. And, like Oprah with Precious, Daniels came on as an executive producer on Pimp, to help the film reach a wider audience.

“I just fell in love with it, with the director and more importantly with Keke. I saw a new side of her that I had never seen before,” Daniels tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Keke is just a revelation.”

Wednesday is hard core — a woman willing to do whatever it takes to make it in the illegal sex trade. She learned the profession at her father's knee. “First time I sold pussy, I was 10 years old," says Palmer's character by way of introduction, explaining how her dad, Midnight John, played by rapper DMX, groomed his daughter to take over the family business. "The only thing you can trust is your money" and "never let a bitch get close to your heart" are some other pearls of wisdom from daddy Midnight.

Crokos based Wednesday on a female pimp in Milwaukee who took her inside the thug life —“she called herself Lady, they all go by Lady” — but the director added elements from other women in her life, including her own mother, to make Wednesday a more rounded, complex figure. Amid blaxploitation scenes of violence, Pimp also shows Wednesday in maternal mode — caring for her  drug-addicted mother (Aunjanue Ellis) — and in scenes of touching intimacy with her girlfriend Nikki (Haley Ramm).

“I tried all the time to stay authentic to this voice and to this world,” says Crokos, “and while I'm Greek-American, not African-American, I was telling a story about women and, as a gay woman, I knew this love story. The story of the LGBTQ community is a fight for love. And it's a hell of a fight.”

Crokos admits that urban films can be a challenge at the box office but hopes, with the examples of Moonlight, The Hate U Give and Sorry to Bother You, the mold is breaking.

Moonlight showed that you can take a specific voice set in a world nobody thinks they care about, until you tell them the story,” she says.

Daniels certainly was convinced. He said he “immediately recognized” the character of Wednesday.

“I know that girl, from when I was 15, from when 20, from when I was 30. I've seen iterations of that. But I don't know if I've ever seen a woman portrayed like this in my lifetime,” he says. “I just think the film shows, what we, as African-Americans, often have to resort to to become legit.”

As happened with Precious, Daniels expects some will criticize Pimp for showing the dark side of urban life, instead of offering a more positive, aspirational image of African Americans.

“Everyone wants to see positive images and positive role models, I understand that,” he says, “but I also think its important to talk about the truth. We should not be afraid to shine a light on stuff that is really happening in the street — and not pretend it's not there.”

It remains to be seen whether Daniels's support of Pimp will give the film an Oprah-style Precious-like boost. Award season recognition, or a major box office push, still seem a stretch for a low-budget genre picture. But Daniels hopes attaching his name to the film will get people who would never have considered watching a movie about a lesbian pimp to check it out.

“I don't compare myself to Oprah,” Daniel says, “but I have a little bit of a fan base, and maybe they can do a bit to help with the support of the film. I learned long ago that this gift of filmmaking is not mine, it's a gift from God that needs to be passed on. And almost like my obligation to vote, it's my obligation to celebrate young filmmakers and pass it on.”

Pimp opens in the U.S. in theaters and on demand via Vertical Entertainment on Friday, Nov. 9.