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In his career as a casting agent, talent manager, film producer and director, Lee Daniels has been an ongoing champion of the "underdog," who expanded opportunities for actors of color and brought controversial stories of societal outcasts to the big screen. Daniels' calling card was dark, visceral, often violent material that offered a surprising flicker of hope in even the most hopeless of circumstances, best showcased in his role as the director of "Precious, Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (2009). Daniels made his directorial debut in 2006 with the gritty, not-so-well received crime drama "Shadowboxer" (2006), having made his breakout as the producer of "Monster's Ball" (2001), which earned a landmark Academy Award for Halle Berry as a widow who becomes involved with a hateful prison guard. Never afraid to explore the most demonized of subject matters, Daniels gravitated towards the complexities of hustlers and killers and even a pedophile in his critically acclaimed producing effort, "The Woodsman" (2004), starring Kevin Bacon. Sometimes Daniels' fearless attempts to make outsider characters more universally relatable missed the mark, and he caught some backlash over characters deemed...
In his career as a casting agent, talent manager, film producer and director, Lee Daniels has been an ongoing champion of the "underdog," who expanded opportunities for actors of color and brought controversial stories of societal outcasts to the big screen. Daniels' calling card was dark, visceral, often violent material that offered a surprising flicker of hope in even the most hopeless of circumstances, best showcased in his role as the director of "Precious, Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (2009). Daniels made his directorial debut in 2006 with the gritty, not-so-well received crime drama "Shadowboxer" (2006), having made his breakout as the producer of "Monster's Ball" (2001), which earned a landmark Academy Award for Halle Berry as a widow who becomes involved with a hateful prison guard. Never afraid to explore the most demonized of subject matters, Daniels gravitated towards the complexities of hustlers and killers and even a pedophile in his critically acclaimed producing effort, "The Woodsman" (2004), starring Kevin Bacon. Sometimes Daniels' fearless attempts to make outsider characters more universally relatable missed the mark, and he caught some backlash over characters deemed unflattering and negative towards the African-American community, but Daniels' character-based approach to first-glance "unsavory" outcasts made him one of the most unique voices in independent film.
Born Lee Louis Daniels in West Philadelphia, PA, on Dec. 24, 1959, Daniels was the oldest of five siblings. His father, a police officer who often bullied the aspiring writer, was killed during a robbery when Daniels was a teen, and thereafter, Daniels was raised by a single mother. But his father's words of discouragement rang in Daniels' ears and he became determined to succeed in spite of his father's lack of belief in him. With dreams of becoming a Hollywood writer, Daniels moved to L.A. after several years of liberal arts studies at Lindenwold College in St. Louis. He took a job at an agency that placed home health care workers, and in only a short period of time, the enterprising young man started his own nursing placement agency and landed a number of important clients, including a contract with the fledgling AIDS Project Los Angeles. A film producer client took note of the 22-year-old's remarkable ability to launch and run his own lucrative business, suggesting he was cut out to work as a producer. That was all the encouragement Daniels needed to sell his business and begin learning showbiz from the ground up.
An internship at a casting agency led to Daniels' first job in Hollywood as a casting agent. Right away, he found he gravitated towards less "Hollywood types" and more realistic looking actors, which was not the trend in the wholesome early 1980s and cost Daniels more than a few clients. Daniels' niche landed him a job as the head of minority casting at Warner Bros.; a job he eventually left to begin working as a talent manager. Lee Daniels Entertainment was launched in 1984, and over the next 15 years, its proprietor fought to open new doors for minority actors and New York stage-trained talent who were generally not contenders for mainstream studio fare. During that time, four of Daniels' clients were nominated for Academy Awards, and his reputation grew as a man passionately dedicated to actors who were serious about their craft, as well as interested in film projects that were based on impactful characters over movie star name recognition.
In 2000, after watching several unsuccessful attempts to begin production on a script entitled "Monster's Ball," the film business veteran made his debut as an official producer when he stepped into the fray and wrested control of the floundering project. For this Southern-set story of an interracial affair between a widowed waitress (Halle Berry) and a seething racist prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who, unbeknownst to her, helped execute her convicted murderer husband (Sean Combs), Daniels sought a director with an outsider's perspective on such potentially loaded subject matter, Swiss director Marc Forster. Daniels' instinct to cut the previously attached and expensive A-list talent like Tommy Lee Jones, Sean Penn and Marlon Brando, and to reduce the budget to something easier to finance for more creative freedom proved spot-on. The gritty, unglamorous film was heaped with praise, including Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay for Milo Addict and Will Rokos and an Academy Award for Halle Berry - the first African-American actress ever awarded a Leading Actress trophy at the ceremony. Daniels was curiously overlooked by NAACP awards, despite his commitment to the black filmmaking community and a production staff that was 95% people of color. Instead Daniels (and Berry) weathered some backlash from the African-American community, who refused to celebrate the actress for participating in a role in which she endured sexual violence at the hands of a white aggressor.
But Daniels' remarkable success producing one of the most talked-about films of the year led to offers from major studios to make considerably more mainstream - and, unfortunately, stereotypically "black" - films. Daniels declined; instead choosing to stay in the independent film world and produce "The Woodsman" (2004), a story about a recovering pedophile (Kevin Bacon), directed by Nicole Kassell and based on a play by Steven Fechter. The strong supporting cast included Bacon's off-screen wife, Kyra Sedgwick, as the romantic lead, rapper Mos Def as a local cop determined to haunt Bacon's character at every turn, and rapper Eve as a conservative, nosy neighbor whose efforts also make it harder for the ex-con to carry on with a normal life. The film's taboo topic spelled limited theatrical release; however that limited run and a tour of the film festival circuit netted a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance, three Independent Spirit Award nominations, the CICAE Arthouse Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Jury Prize at Deauville International Film Festival. Bacon, Sedgwick, Mos Def and Eve were also nominated for various acting prizes.
Later that year, at the request of former president Bill Clinton, Daniels produced a series of public service announcements encouraging young people of color to vote, for which he recruited LL Cool J and Grammy winner Alicia Keys, among others. For Daniels' next big-screen project, the creative, hands-on producer decided he might become a better producer if he spent some time in the director's chair. So in 2006, Daniels made his directorial debut with the script "Shadowboxer," starring Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as mother and stepson contract killers who are also lovers. Their path changes abruptly when one of their targets turns out to be a pregnant woman about to give birth, leading the pair to go on the run from their employers to raise the baby. Critics generally did not buy the film's odd pairing, while its bleak sex and violence did not bring in the art house film crowd. Daniels returned to producing with "Tennessee," (2008), a road movie about two brothers in search of their estranged father in the hopes he might be a biological donor match for the brother with terminal leukemia. Written by Russell Schaumberg and directed by Aaron Woodley, "Tennessee" only received limited released and went relatively unnoticed, although a few critics zeroed in on the impressively understated supporting performance from Mariah Carey as an aspiring singer fleeing an abusive relationship.
While reception over his two previous film projects was lackluster, Daniels remained as committed as ever to creating character-based stories about societal outsiders rarely explored on movie screens. His vision was finally celebrated again with his second directing effort, "Precious." The director's sensibility proved a perfect match for the harrowing story of Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), an obese, abused inner-city teenager, pregnant by her father and unprotected by her cruel mother. Once enrolled in an alternative school for troubled kids and receiving academic and personal encouragement for the first time, the hopeless teen begins a life-altering transformation. The film was overwhelmingly acclaimed during its festival runs at Cannes and Sundance, where it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the latter and a 20-minute ovation at the former. Key to the heart-wrenching film's success were powerhouse performances by first-time actress Sidibe, another impressive turn from Carey as the girl's social worker, and a chilling performance from comedian Mo'Nique as Precious' demeaning mother. Based on its strong initial reception, Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions and filmmaker Tyler Perry's 34th Street Films invested to boost the film's promotion and secure distribution, with their attachment further giving the project from the controversial Daniels another stamp of credibility. Again, Daniels deflected criticism over what some deemed was a negative portrayal of African-American life, but the director maintained that "Precious" was the story of one life, and his perspective just one filmmaking voice in the African-American community. For his efforts, Daniels received nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, Directors Guild of America Awards and Academy Awards for Best Director. Around this time, Daniels also ended his relationship with boyfriend Billy Hopkins, the renowned casting director.
In 2012, Daniels followed up "Precious" with "The Paperboy," a pulpy Southern melodrama starring Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron and Matthew McConaughey that met with a very mixed reception. The next year, he returned to the director's chair yet again for "The Butler" (2013), an ambitious drama that follows decades in the life of longtime White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). The film, notably advertised as "Lee Daniels' The Butler," featured an extensive ensemble cast that included Oprah Winfrey as Cecil's wife and garnered considerable Oscar buzz.
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