As a young man, Lee Daniels recalls the life-changing event that brought him to today — sitting in a movie theater watching the roller coaster life of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues.
Although his career took a few turns along the way, including owning and operating a nursing agency and working as a casting director and manager, he surpassed his early dreams during the past two decades by producing Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, and directing Precious and Lee Daniel’s The Butler. He is also known for Empire and Star, his two series on Fox-TV.
Now the multi-award-winning director is causing a stir with his new movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday, about the infamous blues singer also known as “Lady Day” and her battle with the U.S. government over Strange Fruit, a controversial song about lynching that stirred up concerns about the early Civil Rights movement.
“Growing up I would have never known that I could come this far.” So, how did Daniels accomplish this and his other riveting films? “I dared to dream!”
The legendary jazz icon Billie Holiday spent much of her career being adored by fans across the globe, all while the Federal Department of Narcotics targeted her with an undercover sting operation. Inspired by her life story, the dramatic new movie intimately examines her struggles with addiction, fame, and heartbreaking love.
Little known facts about the life of Lady Day are woven into her tragic childhood story, and many familiar jazz hits including, All of Me, Lover Man, God Bless the Child, Ain’t Nobody’s Business, and of course, Strange Fruit, all beautifully sung by Andra Day, in her stunning acting debut. The movie is heartfelt, lyrical, and both poignant and uplifting. It is an essential work of cinema!
Daniels is crystal clear about his legacy, “I want to make sure that every black person can see a little bit of themselves in every film that I do. That I have been able to capture a mother, father, sister, friend, or partner. That’s my job!”
Recently, Daniels received the 4th Annual Lumière Award from the Philadelphia Film Society, “given to those that have demonstrated a passion for the furtherance of filmmaking as a vital art form,” as well as his direct ties to the Philadelphia area. Previous winners include Bruce Willis, Adam McKay, and M. Night Shyamalan.
During the award’s celebration, Daniels spoke about his body of work, why films immediately struck a chord with him at a young age, and why, like Billie Holiday, he insists on following his own career path and block out both the critics and naysayers.
Monsters & Critics: Lee, please talk about how making this movie evokes early memories for you?
Lee Daniels: My grandfather was the manager of the Locust Theatre in West Philadelphia, and I went into the theater to see the  movie Lady Sings the Blues and it changed my life. I know it’s the reason why I’m directing right now. It’s ironic that this story about this civil rights leader, that didn’t know she was a civil rights leader, is the story that is full circle for me with Lady Sings the Blues. You can’t make this story up; it’s that deep.
M&C: So, why this story?
Lee Daniels: I read this incredible piece by Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Susan Lori-Parks about the government taking down Billie Holiday, and I didn’t know what it meant. I did not know what the song Strange Fruit really was about.
M&C: Why did you feel compelled to bring this to the big screen now?
Lee Daniels: Why did I have to do it? Not just because of her story, but I was appalled that I didn’t know it and I thought to myself how many other stories are there out there about black leaders that we know nothing about? That the government and the media have sort of suppressed on us. That was really my motivation – I was angry! When you think of civil rights leaders, you think of Rosa Parks or Martin
Luther King, and, if you want to get a little edgy, you think of Malcolm X. But you really don’t think of Billie Holiday. One thinks of her as a jazz singer and an addict.
M&C: Talk about working with Andra Day, your leading lady in this film.
Lee Daniels: In my career, I have worked with some incredible actors. I don’t know that I’ve experienced God on the set speaking to me, but he spoke to me through this girl. I never wanted to play her as a victim, as someone that was beaten up by the system. We wanted to play her spirit, the way Billie was, and she was the boss. She could handle herself. She’s a badass, but she’s also vulnerable and fragile.
M&C: What is your early recollection of loving movies?
Lee Daniels: I saw John Waters’ Pink Flamingos when I was in my early 20’s and I’d never seen anything like it before in my life, and I took my mom and my Aunt Maddie. At the end of it, my aunt literally slapped me upside of my head and asked why I took her to see it? I think that that reaction I got from her was something that I enjoyed. Not the slapping, but just the reaction; that she could react so viscerally to something. I sort of knew that, “Wow, I want to be able to make people feel this way, an emotion, an array of emotions that show people in the complexity of the human condition.”
M&C: What have you learned through your films about the human condition?
Lee Daniels: We are complex, and as black people, we’re really complex. I just think that oftentimes through my films, too, I’m personally healing from things that I’ve gone through in my life. So, I’m actually living out the wounds, licking my wounds in front of you all. I know that it’s therapeutic for me; it’s healing for me. Everything I do soothes me and makes me a better person.
M&C: Please talk about being on a journey with your body of work.
Lee Daniels: I’m not the same person I started out to be when I first got into this business. Far from it. Because the films that I’ve done have healed me. Oftentimes as offensive as they are, they have been helpful to me in my becoming a better man.
When you directed Oprah Winfrey in your 2013 movie The Butler, what did you learn about her?
Lee Daniels: I told her she is a phenomenal actor and she needs to work more in films. She didn’t know how to do laundry or peel a potato, [he laughed], but she learned by Take 12.
M&C: You have made some bold decisions with your TV and film projects.
Lee Daniels: It’s interesting. There’s always a deep conversation about my work, and I can’t quite figure that out. I’m living in the moment and I’m telling truth at the moment the way that I see it. That lens is something that oftentimes critics will never understand; ever, and I don’t expect them to understand. I don’t know why that sometimes offends people.
M&C: So much of your past is in your work.
Lee Daniels: Yes, and I don’t expect white men to understand the lens of a black man that’s been put in the trash because he’s gay. And pretending that he was Aladdin flying up in the sky. Until you have stuff thrown at you, eggs thrown at you, in Southwest Philadelphia because you are black, unless you understand and have walked in my shoes, you don’t know my world. I know who I am affecting, and it’s not for the critics. This is similar to Billie Holiday; she really just wanted her people to like it. I just think we share that in common, this love/hate affair with the critics.
M&C: You clearly don’t shy away from controversy.
Lee Daniels: I did do one movie for my church members at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in West Philadelphia. My mother told me after I did The Paperboy, she was like, “Listen, you’ve done a movie about a pedophile with The Woodsman, and you’ve done Precious. People at the church think something happened to you, something happened to us.” I responded, “Ma, I’m just telling a story about life experience. By the way, something did happen to me.” She said, “Can’t you just make movies like Tyler Perry?” The closest I came to that was The Butler and that really shut Miss Jones up from the church for a good while. I don’t know how she will feel about Billie Holiday.
M&C: How are making TV and movies different for you?
Lee Daniels: Doing television is draining and though it’s financially rewarding it’s really draining because you have to continue to give your soul to it. It just beats you down. Though I’m excited about going back into television, I really miss the shortness of just telling a short story and getting in and getting out with it.
M&C: Talk about receiving the prestigious Lumière Award from the Philadelphia Film Society in your hometown.
Lee Daniels: It is an honor. I get a little emotional when I think about getting this. You wonder whether you really deserved it or did I trick myself, did I trick them in all of these movies to make them think that I’m worthy of something like this? Or am I really worthy of something like this? You’re just doing it, not for the awards, you do it because it’s in your heart, it’s in your soul.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now streaming on Hulu.