Lee Daniels delivering SXSW 2017 Film Keynote (Credit: Suzanne Cordeiro for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Lee Daniels delivering SXSW 2017 Film Keynote (Credit: Suzanne Cordeiro for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Director Lee Daniels delivered the Film Keynote address at the 2017 SXSW Festival which kicked off over the weekend in Austin, TX, and as you’d probably expect of the typically blunt director, his speech included a few quotables – some you may have already read/heard in the last couple of days, given that the event was covered by the mainstream industry press.

Most notably, he reiterated his criticism of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, stating, “I don’t understand #OscarsSoWhite. I paved my own way. I have been breaking boundaries. Nobody in Hollywood owes me anything.”

He added: “I know first-hand [racism] is real. I am not going to let it stop me. If you are not going to do it for me, I am going to do it for me. I learned to raise my own capital so you can take Hollywood to the bank when it comes to selling your shit. You pour your heart out and you know there are a lot of frogs you got to kiss. Those that give up separate the boys from the men and the girls from the women. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is the only film I did not get made that I wanted to.”

You’ll recall in a profile published on the New York Times’ website on December 28, 2016, as his new Fox series “Star” premiered (which has a white female lead – “I wanted to show a white girl that had some swag” as “part of the healing process… I wanted white people to feel cool. I wanted them to not be made fun of. We are one”), the writer/director/producer was “sent into a fit of frustration” the article said, when the #OscarsSoWhite protests was brought up by the interviewer. His apparently fuming response to the controversy was: “Go out and do the work… Oscars so white! So what? Do your work. Let your legacy speak and stop complaining, man. Are we really in this for the awards? If I had thought that way — that the world was against me — I wouldn’t be here now… These whiny people that think we’re owed something are incomprehensible and reprehensible to me. I don’t expect acknowledgment or acceptance from white America. I’m going to be me.”

Daniels’ words obviously drew much criticism across social media, but he’s certainly no stranger to controversy, so I doubt that he’s lost much sleep over any of it, especially when you already have one hit show (“Empire”), and a potential second hit show in “Star.”

But Daniels isn’t the first to share these views on #OscarSoWhite; recall Anthony Mackie’s “We’re [black people] being lazy on our game” comment 5 years ago that caused quite a stir, as he further explained that, in essence, black creatives and executives at all levels needed to step up, come together and do something about the near-dismal state of things – at least at that time; and Morgan Freeman couldn’t be bothered at all in the same year when he said, “I think we need to get over that shit” after he was asked about the lack of diversity (specifically black talents) during awards season in a BET interview. “How many Chinese do you see?” he asked the interviewer; “You don’t see them out marching and shit. Oh God please. I think … We need to get over it, that’s all.” Needless to say, those comments didn’t sit well with many. As I recall, it was the subject of one of the most popular posts on S&A in 2011, drawing 100s of comments.

But Freeman did seem to soften his tone a bit this year, when asked in February by Variety about #OscarsSoWhite. His more measured response was: “I can understand why the noise came up. But to me, it’s just noise. If we’re going to talk about diversity in the film industry, we don’t need to start with the Academy Awards. We need to start somewhere way back — with the producers, the directors, the casting agents, the writers. It should be an open field. I think in today’s world, if you look out there, that’s what would reflect today’s America.”

There have been a few others who’ve publicly echoed Lee Daniels’ thoughts, although they haven’t been as pugnacious about it as he has, labeling #OscarsSoWhite advocates as “whiny,” “incomprehensible” and “reprehensible” people. Mighty venomous and quite unnecessary words there sir, for a significant movement (one that went mainstream and actually led to real change) that just wants a very influential industry and its product to reflect the people who effectively support it.

April Reign, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and launched a movement, responded to Daniels’ criticisms in a January Ebony piece, stating the following: “Despite a wealth of impressive talent and work, all too often people from marginalized communities are still overlooked. This is why Daniels seems particularly tone deaf when he says artists of color should ‘let your legacy speak and stop complaining, man.’ When talented filmmakers with undeniable legacies like Melvin Van Peebles and Julie Dash were just invited to join the Academy in 2016, despite their seminal work for years, someone should speak out. I created #OscarsSoWhite to address these issues and will not be deterred, even if Daniels finds it ‘reprehensible.'”

She also challenged Daniels’ understanding (or lack thereof) of the movement: “Underlying Daniels statements appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of #OscarsSoWhite. In the New York Times article, he asks, ‘Are we really in this for the awards?’ The hashtag and the campaign behind it is not about the statue, which is tangible recognition from one’s peers of a job well done. I maintain that, whether you are a fry cook or a well-known Hollywood director, everyone seeks recognition. In fact, Daniels apparently seeks this acknowledgement as well, despite his dismissive question. When ‘Empire’ failed to receive an Emmy nomination for best TV drama series last year, Daniels took to Instagram with Jussie Smollett and yelled ‘F you MFers’ to Emmys voters (expletives deleted). He later attempted to downplay this statement by saying it was all in jest, despite the hashtags #canfinallypostthis #timetoberealagain and #emmyniceguyoverwith on the post. Too often celebrities and public figures attain a certain amount of status and then seemingly forget the struggle that it took to get there. Daniels appears to be steeped in class privilege or, as my grandmother would say, ‘He forgot where he came from.’ The goal of #OscarsSoWhite is to make the struggle that Daniels overcame a little easier for those who are still climbing the ladder of success. It’s a shame that Daniels is selective in deciding when he wants to be supportive of this endeavor.”

All that said, does Daniels have a point when he emphasizes, effectively, self-reliance? His seeming fundamental misunderstanding of #OscarSoWhite aside (as elucidated by Reigns above), haven’t many of us cheered and preached self-reliance, doing for ourselves, taking what’s ours as opposed to asking for it, even creating a black owned and operated film production/financing/distribution studio that rivals the biggies (Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, etc), when it comes to our (black people) evolution and gains within the film and TV industries? I’ve shared the memorable Sam Greenlee video interview a number of times on this blog, during which he’s challenged black storytellers to essentially take control and not wait for Hollywood to change for our sake, and many readers of this blog have applauded Greenlee’s words. Even Ava DuVernay’s popular call to action includes an emphasis on not asking for permission, and instead just doing.

So is it possible to both firmly disagree with Daniels’ dismissal/lack of understanding of #OscarsSoWhite (which isn’t about winning awards, but rather fostering an inclusive creative environment that reflects the audience that supports that environment), and also agree with him on his message of self-reliance? Are they mutually exclusive?

I should note that it’s been proven (by recent studies done by UCLA via its annual diversity report, and others) that diversity does pay; and since it’s been said that profit is what ultimately drives Hollywood (although that’s still up for debate), it would most certainly be in the best interest of the mostly white executives who run the studios to break out of their decision making comfort zones, and consider being more inclusive. A recent film like “Get Out” for example, made for a measly $4.5 million has grossed over $100 million after just 2 weeks in release – the fastest Blumhouse Productions film to reach $100 million. “Hidden Figures” has grossed over $200 million worldwide ($25 million budget); “Moonlight” (made for $1.5 million) is now approaching $50 million globally. And there are other successful examples. What will each of these successes yield? History suggests more films like them; but at some point, one can only hope that lessons will be learned, and we’ll see more variety as well as volume.

One question worth asking here is whether we should be holding the black Hollywood elite more accountable; the entertainers (actors, directors, producers, musicians, even athletes who are getting into content production and distribution) with the money, the influence, the access, the power to actually lead a movement that results in sustained change and long term growth. What role do they play in this struggle?

But maybe speaking to Reign’s critic in her Ebony piece that he’d essentially “forgotten where he came from,” during Daniels’ SXSW keynote speech, he also talked about his difficult childhood, providing the audience with some context to demonstrate just how far he’s come, and how much work he had to do to get there.

From the projects in southwest Philadelphia where he witnessed friends getting shot, raised in a family that dealt drugs, to a father who beat him in an attempt to make him “a man,” realizing at a young age that he was gay, and more.

“That’s the America I knew [in the 1960s],” Daniels said. “My mom knew something was going to happen to me if I didn’t leave.”

He spent went a year in college in Missouri before starting a nursing agency in Los Angeles, which went on to become very successful.

“It was no different than pimping,” Daniels said of the business, which he would later sell for “several million dollars.” He would then find work as a production assistant on Warner Bros’ “Purple Rain.”

“The suits didn’t like me. I smoked Newport cigarettes, wore an Armani jacket and drove a Porsche. I had never worked for anyone before. I had no filter,” he said.

He was later fired from the production, but, as he shared, Warner Bros ultimately rehired him, making him a casting director for actors of color specifically, which he wasn’t very successful at doing; the “disenfranchised in the pre-Spike Lee period” as he referred to his clients at the time.

Eventually, he left the position and produced “Monster’s Ball,” which earned Halle Berry the first best actress Oscar for a black woman.

After that, he said he still had to struggle, stating “I was getting offered scripts like leprechaun movies,” which he wasn’t interested in. And so he decided he’d have to pave his own way somehow, and went on to produce “The Woodsman” starring Kevin Bacon, before moving on to directing himself, starting with “Shadow Boxer” and Oscar-winner “Precious,” as well as “The Paper Boy” and “The Butler.”

“I worked on films I knew I had to do,” said Daniels, who said he doesn’t like being called “a black filmmaker.”

As we all know, race is a social construct, and many black talents (actors, filmmakers) in Hollywood have also expressed that they don’t want their race to define them, which is perfectly understandable. But we can’t be selective about when these racial classifiers are used. If we’re going to eliminate the use of the word “black” in front of “filmmaker,” “actor,” “director,” “film” “cinema,” “music” etc, then shouldn’t we be working to tear down the racial construct entirely? This would then mean that we wouldn’t use the label “black” at all; we would no long refer to ourselves as black people, or white people; we would just be people. A filmmaker would just be a filmmaker, not a black filmmaker or white filmmaker. An actor would just be an actor, not a black or white actor.

I suppose my point is that, a filmmaker who happens to be black can’t just simply declare, “I’m not a black filmmaker,” without considering for a broader, more rooted conversation about what the word “black” means, where it comes from, etc.

I don’t have all the answers, so I’m posing these questions and sharing my own thoughts, hoping that others will chime in.

Finally, addressing the current administration, Daniels shared, “I couldn’t sleep [after Trump won the election]… I wrote some of the best stuff in my life because of that. I felt like a snake when the skin falls off.”

On how he believes President Trump will affect the film and TV industry, Daniels said he hoped that it would produce lots of great art.

That’s one this that I think we all can agree on.