Prolific writer, producer and director Lee Daniels talks about Sammy Davis Jr., paying it forward and the unexpected project that may bring him back to Philly this summer.
Lee Daniels PHOTO BY JOE PUGLIESE/AUGUST IMAGE, LLC
“Currently, I’m writing a limited series for Hulu about Sammy Davis Jr.,” says Daniels, who is calling from the West Coast for our interview. “So I rented Lena Horne’s old home in Palm Springs because I knew he spent time here. I’m hopeful I’m going to hear his voice sooner or later.”
The Oscar-nominated producer, director and screenwriter known for critically acclaimed films like Monster’s Ball and Precious and the hit TV show Empire may have a sixth sense about channeling the spirit of legendary Hollywood entertainers. His Hulu film The United States vs. Billie Holiday has been one of the year’s most talked-about movies for its portrayal of the iconic jazz singer’s troubled personal life. The role earned “Rise Up” R&B singer Andra Day a Golden Globe award and Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Daniels says that, like many fans of Lady Day, he wasn’t aware of her life offstage.
“I did not know all that much about Billie Holiday. And, you know, I thought of myself as an educated man that understood Black history. I was dumbstruck when the story was presented to me because there was nothing fictional about the story at all.”
His other biographical films celebrate ordinary Black men doing extraordinary things, like 2013’s star-studded The Butler and the just-released Netflix movie Concrete Cowboy, the story of Philly’s own Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. Concrete Cowboy, which stars Idris Elba, was personal for Daniels, who grew up in West Philly and graduated from Radnor High School. Daniels insisted that the movie was shot in his hometown for authenticity, yes, but, ultimately, to put money in people’s pockets.
“I’m so happy we were able to do Concrete Cowboy because it addresses an issue that’s really important. But, more importantly, I was giving work to so many people that really want to get into movies and the arts. Look, there are so many people that are unemployed in Philadelphia.”
“When I was on the set of The Woodsman in 2014, I did not have a single Black person on the set. Sharon Pinkenson (of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office) and I fought together to find Black people to work in the crew and on costumes and other jobs. I was able to get a decent amount of people of color working on set for Concrete Cowboy. It’s hard enough creating something, so it’s harder when you have to find people of color and people that are LGBTQ—people that look like you and talk like you and feel like you.”
Daniels hopes to return to Philly this summer to shoot his first horror film and, no doubt, to visit his dentist, Dr. Jeremy Kay, who he flies in from all over to see. (“You know, all my teeth are fake; I don’t trust anybody on the grill but him,” he says.) While he readies for that production, he’s juggling multiple TV projects. There’s a reboot of The Wonder Years and the FX spy drama The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which Daniels says was his dad’s favorite book.
There are plenty of projects with Black women at the center, too, from a series about wealthy girls who live on Martha’s Vineyard titled Our Kind of People and a reimagining of the film Waiting to Exhale with members of the original cast for ABC to a new show for BET+ called Miss Pat that Daniels describes as “Archie Bunker meets Roseanne.”
Daniels says many of his female characters, especially Cookie, the lead character in Empire, are inspired by his family and friends in Philadelphia. “I may be biased here, but I’ve traveled all over the world and there is a strength and charisma about Philadelphia women that is undeniable. My character Cookie was based on all the women that I knew in Philly.”
So how does one of Hollywood’s most powerful talents define the notion of power in 2021? “[The definition] changes over time. So right now power is making sure that I’m giving back. God gave me a really beautiful gift, but the gift isn’t in keeping my talent but in passing it off to future generations and making sure I’m not holding on to it. I have to release the gift that God gave me. That’s what power means to me. You know, Oprah will be really proud of that comment.”
Photography by: Courtesy of Joe Pugliese/August Image, LLC