Lee Daniels (born December 24, 1959) is an American film director, producer, and screenwriter. His first producer credit was Monster’s Ball (2001), with which he became the first African-American film producer to solely produce an Oscar-winning film, when Halle Berry won Best Actress. After his directorial debut Shadowboxer (2005) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Daniels directed Precious (2009), based on the novel Push. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including two nominations for Daniels (Best Director and Best Picture).
In 2013, he directed Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a drama that tells the story of an African-American butler who served at the White House during seven presidential administrations. In 2015, Daniels co-created and directed Fox’s Empire and served as executive producer for all six seasons.
Daniels was born on December 24, 1959 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the eldest son of Clara Watson and William L. Daniels. Daniels has four siblings – Cheryl, Lydia (aka Girlie), Maynard and Leah. His younger sister, Leah Daniels-Butler, is a television and film casting director credited with casting many of his projects. As a teenager, Daniels earned a scholarship to Radnor High School. In 1975, when Daniels’ was 15 years-old, his family faced a devastating loss, when their father, who was a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. He graduated from Radnor High School in 1978, and then Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri.
After graduating from Radnor in 1978, Daniels attended Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. But he soon realized the liberal arts school was not for him, and he moved to Hollywood, eventually working as a receptionist in a nursing agency. Before long, Daniel’s started his own nursing agency – specializing in HIV/AIDS treatment. Eventually, he sold his nursing agency and segued into casting. He began his career in entertainment as a casting director and manager after a chance meeting with a Hollywood producer, working on such projects as Under the Cherry Moon and Purple Rain. He continued managing talent. The documentary My Big Break features Daniels early in his career when he was managing actor Wes Bentley, who starred as Ricky Fitts in American Beauty. In the documentary, Daniels comments on Bentley’s reluctance to capitalize on his newfound celebrity status.
Monster’s Ball, the debut production of Lee Daniels Entertainment, was a critical and box office success. Halle Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress; the film was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Daniels said he did not attend the Oscars when the film won, citing his challenges with addiction and his struggle over whether he “deserved” to attend, according to an emotional interview on MSNBC in 2019.
His 2004 production The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, and Mos Def, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It went on to garner three nominations at the 2005 Independent Spirit Awards, the CICAE Arthouse Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Jury Prize at the Deauville International Film Festival, and a “Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking” award from the National Board of Review. Former president Bill Clinton persuaded Daniels to produce public service announcements to encourage young people of color to vote. The campaign was launched in March 2004 and featured Grammy winners LL Cool J and Alicia Keys.
His first directorial effort, 2006’s Shadowboxer, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. It starred Helen Mirren, Cuba Gooding Jr., Stephen Dorff, Vanessa Ferlito, Mo’Nique, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Macy Gray. It was nominated for Best New Director at the San Sebastian Film Festival.
His 2008 production Tennessee was written by Russell Schaumberg and directed by Aaron Woodley (Rhinoceros Eyes); the film is about two brothers, played by Adam Rothenberg and Ethan Peck, who travel from New Mexico to Tennessee to search for their estranged father. Along the way they meet Krystal (Mariah Carey), an aspiring singer who flees her controlling husband (Lance Reddick) to join them on their journey.
His 2009 film Precious told the story of an obese, illiterate, 16-year-old girl (Gabourey Sidibe) who lives in a Section 8 tenement in Harlem. She has been impregnated twice by her father, Carl, and suffers long-term physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from her unemployed mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). Carey appeared as a social worker. The film screened at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and went on to garner widespread acclaim. Mo’Nique won the Academy award for best supporting actress, Daniels was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director and the film received a Best Picture nomination. It was a financial success grossing $63 million worldwide against a budget of $10 million.
In 2010, Grace Hightower De Niro, who appeared in Precious, presented Daniels with the Pratt Institute’s Creative Spirit Award.
Daniels directed The Paperboy (2012), based on the 1995 novel by Pete Dexter who penned the original script which was further developed by Daniels; it starred Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, John Cusack, and Nicole Kidman. The film competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
He directed the historical fiction drama film The Butler (2013), starring Forest Whitaker, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Alan Rickman, and Oprah Winfrey. The Butler received positive reviews from critics and grossed over $100 million in the United States against a budget of $30 million.
Empire, a television series created by Daniels, premiered on January 7, 2015. Daniels directed the first episode and co-wrote it with The Butler screenwriter Danny Strong. The series stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, and is about a family’s music empire.
In 2015, Daniels was listed as one of the nine runners-up for The Advocate’s Person of the Year.
In June 2016, the Human Rights Campaign released a video in tribute to the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting; in the video, Daniels and others told the stories of the people killed there.
On December 2, 2016, Daniels received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the television industry.
On February 8, 2018, amfAR (The Foundation for AIDS Research) paid tribute to Daniels at their 20th annual amfAR Gala New York at Cipriani Wall Street. Award-winning actress, singer, and songwriter Queen Latifah presented him the amfAR Award of Courage, describing his past work with HIV/AIDS patients. She also shared that as a gifted creative force, he creates “unfailingly human” characters, who are “often striving to rise above difficult circumstances”. In his acceptance speech, he spoke about a generation lost to AIDS and said that the crisis had taken at least 40 of his personal friends. In the fight against AIDS, he said it is important to “step up when it matters”.
In May 2021, Daniels and his production company Lee Daniels Entertainment had extended its overall deal with 20th Television.
On September 16, 2015, in a Rolling Stone interview, Daniels was asked about actor Terrence Howard who said that his first wife “was talking to [him] real strong, [that he] lost [his] mind and slapped her in front of [their] kids” and that he got physical with his second wife too. Daniels excused the domestic violence and called Howard a “poor boy”, saying that Howard “ain’t done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn”. A week later, Daniels was sued by Penn in a 10 million dollar defamation lawsuit. The lawsuit stated that “Daniels falsely equate[d] Penn with Howard [and that] Penn (unlike Howard) [had] never been arrested, much less convicted, for domestic violence, as his ex-wives (including Madonna) would [have] confirm[ed] and attest[ed].” Penn dropped the lawsuit in May 2016 after Daniels retracted his statement and apologized.
Daniels lives in Manhattan. He is gay. He and his then-partner, casting director Billy Hopkins, adopted Daniels’s biological niece and nephew, Clara and Liam.
Hopkins and Daniels later separated.
In 2015, Daniels clarified his sexuality by stating that despite being gay men, both he and Empire actor Jussie Smollett are sexually fluid.
Jussie and I both share the same feeling that, yes, even though we are gay, we’re sexual human beings…And we do occasionally want to sleep with a woman. [Laughs] Maybe once every 10 or 15 years, but it happens! And there are a lot of people who don’t want to hear about that. It’s such a complicated conversation. It’s not necessarily the body one is attracted to. You can be sexually attracted to the spirit, the energy, the life force in another person. We’re showing life on Empire, and I won’t apologise for it.
|1986||A Little Off Mark||Yes|
|Agnes und seine Brüder||Yes|
|2013||Lee Daniels’ The Butler||Yes||Yes|
|2021||The United States vs. Billie Holiday||Yes||Yes|
|2015–2020||Empire||Co-creator, executive producer, director, writer|
|2016–2019||Star||Co-creator, executive producer, director, writer|
|2021||The Wonder Years||Executive producer|
|TBA||The Spook Who Sat by the Door||Executive producer|
|2009||My Big Break|
|2010||The Black List: Volume 3|