TAB_141216_LEE_DANIELS_INTAmerican actor, film producer, and director Lee Daniels, in an interview with Gulf News, during day 7 of the Dubai International Film Festival. Photo Zarina Fernandes/ Gulf News

There’s never a dull moment during an interview with Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels. The man behind gritty dramas such as Precious and The Butler and who was on call at the Dubai International Film Festival to be the head of the Muhr Narrative Films jury commands your attention with his concise — albeit controversial — thoughts.

“I have been brainwashed from the time that I have been a child about the Arabic community and Arab culture. [That’s] what the American media does to the minds of America,” said Daniels in an interview on the sidelines of Diff 2014. It’s his first visit to the UAE and he admits that it’s been a magical experience that included unlearning and letting go of stereotypes.

“That you are peaceful people … that was an overwhelming learning experience I had. At 55, you would think that you know everything because you have been around the world. And now I am thinking how can this be? Some of the injustices and atrocities that are happening to your people are unspeakable and so from that perspective I have learnt to be ashamed of the things that I have been taught.” He’s man enough to admit that Arab stereotypes remained deeply entrenched in his mind until this visit, but ask him about the perceptions about Arabs in his head and he responds: “I think the same perception that you have about African Americans. You know what I am talking about, I ain’t going into details. You know what I am talking about. It’s horrific.”

While he claims he’s having the time of his life in Dubai and absorbing every detail of his Middle Eastern adventure, the jury duty has also taught him a thing or two about listening to other people’s viewpoints — a habit that he is learning to cultivate.

His towering personality, infectious booming voice and his gregarious body language makes him a poster boy for being a born leader. He just doesn’t seem cut out for following orders (a point that his good friend Oprah Winfrey has plucked from time to time, more on that later)

“I was supposed to come out here last year but I had to work on The Butler. But when they invited me again, I just flew out here. The question isn’t how’s Dubai treating you. [It’s] how am I treating Dubai?” said Daniels with a laugh.

“I came with these high-brow [intentions] expecting cinema you know. So I am thinking it [the films that I judge] should be this way and that way … Then someone informed me that here the film culture is like a child, it’s new. And that for some documentaries, the actors, the crew are putting their lives in jeopardy. And I think Oh My God, I should judge it differently. So I am incredibly humbled.”

Born in Philadelphia in the 1960s in a large household with an abusive father and relentless bullies at school, Daniels has survived a chequered past.

Battling drug addiction and an identity crisis were his realities, but nobody can deny his ascent to success.

He was plucked from obscurity (Lee started out directing plays, then began a nursing agency that he eventually sold for big bucks and went on to become a casting director, followed by Halle Berry’s manager. He then hit the big league when he produced Oscar-winning Monster’s Ball) when he began making a living hammering out poignant dramas touching upon dark subjects.

While Precious explored incest and child sexual abuse, his film The Woodsman delved into child molestation. Even his family-friendly epic The Butler, which chronicled the tale of Cecil Gaines who served eight presidents at the White House, had his people in the centre. So do all his films have to reflect his realities or has he considered moving away from African-American experience?

“I can’t tell stories unless they are my stories. I am a gay man. I am an African-American and I am very blessed to be alive. I have watched people die in my arms as a kid. It was like Vietnam where I grew up. I have watched people die in my arms of HIV. This is something that is real to me. If I can’t show you that on screen or if I cant make you feel what I have experienced then I haven’t done my job as a filmmaker,” said Daniels. However, his latest project — Empire, a TV series starring Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard about a family running a hip-hop series, is a departure of sorts for Daniels. He has often dubbed it as Dynasty starring African Americans.

“I have always been inspired to make a musical and this is my first time in television. I have never done TV before,” said Daniels, snapping his finger in the air.

“I am very excited about bringing the African-American experience to the world. They can see what’s happening in the heart of poverty, in the heart of the ghettos and at the same time show what African-Americans with money have. It’s two different cultures but you will see the African-American experiences merge.” While he’s thrilled about the warm reception that the trailers have evoked, he’s gleeful about proving his confidante and friend Oprah Winfrey wrong, who believed that he would be a misfit in Television.

“She knows me really well. You know I am a filmmaker and she says: ‘with TV it’s democracy and in film the director is God.’ So she didn’t understand how I would take instructions or orders from anybody. But gotchyu Oprah, I did it,” said Daniels, looking into the camera. He describes Winfrey as his “girlfriend, his older sister although she thinks she’s my younger sister.” Winfrey has also been roped into his next film, Richard Pryor — a biopic starring Mike Epps and Kate Hudson.

“Richard Pryor changed people’s perceptions of what white people thought of black people through comedy.” While he’s notorious for wearing pyjamas to his film sets, his attitude is far from casual when it comes to his films.

“When I do a movie, a little bit of my soul dies, because I give everything I have. I forget my partner, I forget my children and I forget my food, I forget my mother because I am giving birth to something. Everything that I have in me is pregnant for the delivery of my child.” Perhaps, it’s this quality that has convinced stars to let go of inhibitions while being directed by Daniels. He famously convinced Nicole Kidman to urinate on Zac Efron on the big screen in Paperboy. So how does he persuade his stars to do the unthinkable?

“I don’t tell them: this is the way you should hold your head because I don’t know. I am flawed and I am a human being. I am proud of the flaws I have and the imperfections I have because they make me perfect … So when I have that attitude that I am not perfect, it’s infectious. The people around me understand that. They don’t try to be perfect themselves. So we make the imperfections look perfect.”

Did you know?

Lee Daniels would have loved to wear a comfortable pair of pyjamas while carrying out his Diff jury duties, but he refrained from it because he wanted to respect the tradition and culture of the UAE. In his quest to find something comfortable, he hit upon the traditional robe — a kandura.

“It’s like pyjamas. If I had known that I would have worn a bunch of it of them and worn it everyday,” said Daniels.


“Always tell the truth and don’t be ashamed of who you are, where you come from or what you are about because we have the power to change the world.”