Realizing Hollywood dreams

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday September 5, 2018
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"I dare to dream, and never took no for an answer. Early on I was told I would be nothing, and in my heart I knew I had to fight that. I was going to be something." Lee Daniels, the powerhouse gay African-American director and producer, is profiled in the PBS summer series "Breaking Big," hosted by Carlos Watson, available to watch through September.

"Breaking Big" examines how influential artists, innovators, and leaders (author Roxanne Gay, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) became successful. It recounts their most dramatic turning points, "overcoming insurmountable obstacles and long odds to reach their own potential to break big." Few would have predicted success for Daniels, who grew up on the tough streets of West Philadelphia, watching kids dodging bullets. Yet even at age five, he knew this gang environment was not going to be his fate. Very young, he had an interest in the arts, reading from the theater section at the public library, and playing with Barbie dolls instead of the boxing gloves his cop father gave him. His father - violent, tried to beat the gay out of him - was shot and killed in a holdup, leaving his mother to raise five kids. His grandmother knew Daniels was gay when he was eight, but encouraged him to be honest and stay the course, because he had been "anointed."

Dropping out of college, he took a bus to Hollywood to chase his dreams, initially homeless. He became a receptionist at a nursing agency, but decided to create his own at home, employing 100 nurses, making a lot of money. AIDS hit, and he watched lovers and friends die. Believing his days were numbered, Daniels pursued sex in bathhouses but miraculously didn't contract AIDS, though he used drugs to help ease his pain.

A chance encounter with a producer led to his working as an assistant on the set of the Prince film "Purple Rain," learning how Hollywood operated. He sold his nursing agency for over $2 million, then found his niche casting actors. "'No' was not an option for me." His brother was sent to jail, but his girlfriend bore him two kids. Lee didn't want them, but his partner did. At 11 months he left them alone to look for drugs, but realized his failing in what became a turning point. He entered rehab, got his career back on track, and embraced his new role as father for his nephew and niece.

He produced a film for Lionsgate, "Monster's Ball," that became a hit and won Halle Berry the first African-American Best Actress Oscar. This success gave him the courage to direct "Precious," about a dysfunctional black teenager, with themes of sexual and emotional abuse, as well as AIDS. Initially seen as impossible to finance, it got the backing of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and won critical raves and awards. Daniels directed the Hollywood hit "The Butler," then conquered TV with the Fox phenomenon "Empire," a musical drama about an entertainment company and its founders' family, including Jamal, an out gay man in hip hop.

When he first arrived in Hollywood, Daniels felt embarrassed about his background, but didn't begin to thrive until he embraced both his blackness and gayness. "You have to be ready to be ridiculed for your beliefs. I speak for that face you don't see. I want to change your thoughts about black people, gay people. That's why I'm so out. It's important to live in your truth. I'm not perfect, but wake up every morning trying to be a good man." As psychologist Ellen Langer notes, with such a bleak childhood history, Daniels was set up for failure. But instead he saw his differences and negative experiences as assets. Daniels feels obliged to pass his story on to kids, telling them not to be afraid, they can do what he has done. Daniels' travails and triumphs, upliftingly told in "Breaking Big," should inspire all queer people to strive to be resilient, purposeful, and keep moving ahead with their creative vision, despite the challenges.