Director and producer Lee Daniels said he wants to make something very clear — he’s not Tyler Perry.
“My mom said, ‘I don’t understand you, everybody in church thinks something’s wrong with you — all your movies are about freaks. Why can’t you do movies like Tyler Perry?’”
In his Ohio Union Activities Board-sponsored visit to Ohio State Thursday night, Daniels said his movies, which aren’t always feel-good stories, are a direct result of his experiences.
“I can’t tell what I have not experienced because it’s not truthful,” Daniels said. “And so I have to work from what I know.”
Overall, Daniels’ talk to about 100 students at the Archie Griffin West Ballroom at the Ohio Union was a testament to finding success through perseverance, talent, art and love.
“Always follow your heart and never give up,” Daniels said. “Never take ‘no’ for an answer because I think that separates the sissies from the men.”
Daniels, whose movies include “Monster’s Ball,” which he produced, and “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which he produced and directed, spoke about his journey from the projects of Philadelphia to becoming an Academy Award-nominated director.
But despite his recent success, the 54-year-old director and producer said growing up as someone who was “different” from his five siblings resulted in a very “abusive” relationship with his now deceased father.
“When I was 5, my earliest memory was walking down the stairs in my mother’s red high heel shoes, and my dad — he’s a cop — is down playing cards with the boys and it was not pretty — at all,” Daniels said. “He put me in a trash can and he said that I would never be nothing. He said, ‘You already have it bad, boy, cause you’re black — now you’re a faggot too.’”
In that moment, Daniels said he first experienced escaping his reality through his imagination.
“I remember the stench of it, I remember the texture and the darkness and the cold,” Daniels said. “I thought I was Aladdin and I would just fly away.”
And fly away he did, following a series of school years where Daniels said he was bullied to the point of holding his bowel movements and urine at school, because he was too afraid of going to the bathroom.
But before becoming the man behind the lens, Daniels said he took a series of odd jobs after moving to Los Angeles when he was in his late teens.
At first, Daniels worked as a receptionist for a nursing agency by day and for a movie theater at night.
By the time he was 21, Daniels said he gained the confidence to open his own nursing agency after “seeing the hustle” of the business.
Within two years, Daniels said he had employed 500 nurses and had become a millionaire.
Knowing that his calling was in film, Daniels eventually sold his nursing agency and turned from picking nurses to casting actors for various Hollywood projects.
Soon enough, Daniels began to work on more notable projects, like singer Prince’s, whose real name is Prince Rogers Nelson, movie, “Purple Rain,” which he said was his foot in the door.
Even though he had found success, Daniels said his money led to a lifestyle that included drugs and prostitutes — a lifestyle that was present through the first movie he produced, “Monster’s Ball,” which propelled Halle Berry to be the first black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
“Halle Berry called me the night after we went to the Oscars — I went back to my hotel — and she said, ‘Are you coming to the Vanity Fair Party?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ll get there,’ but I was too embarrassed to come — I didn’t think that I had earned it,” Daniels said. “And so that voice that my dad told me I was nothing — I had a crystal meth pipe in my hand and a couple hookers — and so that was the beginning of not feeling worthy of existing.”
Daniels said it wasn’t until an eye-opening moment where he neglected his two adopted kids that he finally realized the necessity of becoming sober.
“I had a long stretch of sobriety of two months — that’s a long-ass stretch,” Daniels said. “I remember my boyfriend had gone to the hockey game and I had a calling — Satan was over my neck — and I remember walking over my kids, leaving them in the apartment, walking to the drug man. Going to him, you know, knocking and ringing his doorbell, and then having this epiphany at this moment of ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’ And so I’ve been sober since.”
After gaining his sobriety, Daniels said it was time to do a movie more fit for his mom’s church friends.
“Let me go find a movie that’s going to make the church people happy — in come ‘The Butler,’” Daniels said.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the 2013 film inspired by the life of a White House butler who witnessed a series of historical events over his 34-year tenure, starred Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and grossed more than $167 million worldwide set against a budget of $30 million.
Ultimately, Daniels said it takes him three or four years to “give birth” to a movie like “The Butler” because he pours his soul into every project — and this is why he doesn’t make as many movies as Tyler Perry.
Some students who attended Thursday’s event said they appreciate Daniels for the time it takes him to produce his work because it has a deep effect on them once it hits the silver screen.
Nick DaLonzo, a second-year in film studies and marketing who attended the event, said his favorite of Daniels’ movies is “The Butler.”
“It really hit home about certain segregations in the United States and how far we’ve come from those days,” DaLonzo said in an email.
Overall, DaLonzo said Daniels’ message about triumph in the face of adversity was compelling.
“I took away the fact that you should always be yourself and never give up,” DaLonzo said. “Keep perusing what you dream of doing in life, and don’t let anyone tell you no or get in your way. Mr. Daniels was extremely inspiring to listen to — as he told us all of the deepest and darkest things about his life and how he conquered them all.”
Sara Clark, a first-year in psychology who also attended the event, said Daniels has qualities other directors lack.
“I really enjoyed how he spoke about the way he chooses what movies to make,” Clark said in an email. “The story has to speak to him, and if he doesn’t feel like it grabs his heart, he can’t do it. He has such a passion for genuine storytelling that was evident in his speech. I think a lot of directors are lacking that.”
Daniels’ filmmaking craft might indicate that he is unlike other directors of today.
“I’m not f—ing Tyler Perry,” he said.