Lee Daniels Grilled on Discovering Racism, Being Oprah

“I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that there is deep racism in America, and that’s a scary thing. I’m happy I didn’t know it when I was starting out”

Director Lee Daniels’ latest film isn’t exactly a follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Precious.”  

“Prince of Broadway" is a dynamite little character piece by NYU film grad Sean Baker that opens Friday. Daniels is acting as “presenter” while he prepares for his own next projects.

Those would be “The Butler,” about a butler who has lived with a succession of U.S. presidents, and possibly “Selma,” based on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches.

Here, he talks about his discovery of racism in America, fractured families and how he’s doing a favor to the public with “Prince of Broadway.”

“Prince of Broadway” gives a face to the unseen people, just as you did with “Precious.” How are you at really seeing the invisible people around you?
I’m sort of twisted that way. I love faces, and I love looking behind the eyes to the soul to see what makes people tick. I’m not anesthetized to my surroundings at all.

The studios seem preoccupied with coming up with likable characters. Where are you with that?
Look, it’s not black, it’s not white. It’s gray. That’s what I try to get at in all the stories that I’m trying to tell, that there is a gray area that we all live in. We all try to be good people but we f— up, and that’s just the way life is.

The industry has learned a very valuable lesson from films like “Precious.” They underestimate the intelligence of the American public. We want to see the truth. Yeah, we want to go see the “Spider-Mans,” but we also want to see about that person on the street.

How hard is it to get the audience to see beyond color and just see the characters as people?
I wonder. I used to think that the world was color-blind. If I had had the attitude that racism was out there early in my career, I don’t know that I would have had the courage, the stamina, to go out and do what I’ve done. But I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that there is deep racism in America, and that’s a scary thing. I’m happy I didn’t know it then.

Under Obama, racism seems to be more prevalent — or at least more visible than ever.
I’m deeply disturbed and this is what has made me feel, ‘Oh wow! Oh s—! We’re dealing with some hardcore racism that I really didn’t think existed. What was I on? I thought that went out with slavery or that Martin Luther King sort of dealt with that and the we all sort of moved on.

I’m gay, I have a white partner, I live in New York but I think the world is different from Los Angeles and New York City and that we’re cities of our own. We’re countries of our own, actually.

There is a theme of fractured family running through your work.
Oddly enough, I’ve healed from every film that I’ve done. There’re some phenomenal scripts that have come my way since “Precious” that deal with incest, that deal with abuse, that deal with interracial stuff. I’ve passed on them because I’ve done it, and when you’ve done it, I’ve sort of healed and released it and I’m moving on. I’m doing two Civil Rights films, and I’m thinking how do I inject my past in it and it’s hard.

There are so many great stories dealing with black and white in American history. Why haven’t we seen more of it? It seems producers won’t go near it!
I’m getting near it! Yeah baby! I got “The Butler,” yeah baby! I’m excited!

So you’re finding greater tolerance within the industry.
I think because of the world that I come from and people recognizing “Precious,” it enables me to make movies now at the studios like “Selma” and “The Butler” and hopefully I’ll be able to give Sean Baker the opportunity to do those types of things, too.

OK, let’s talk about “Prince of Broadway.” How did it come to you?
I was a juror at the Independent Spirit Awards and I saw this film along with Sean’s other film, “Take Out” and I love both of them. They had a heart to it that I had not seen before and a style that I had not seen before — a truth — and I fell in love with the filmmaker; I fell in love with his style.

Also, our lead guy in the film, Lucky, played by Prince Adu, he’s not perfect, but yet we love him ‘cause here he is. He’s a hustler and yet we’ve fallen in love with a hustler. Some kind of way, Sean has convinced us to embrace the life of this booster, and that’s a tricky thing to do.

So you got personally involved —
In my films, I try to give voice to people that aren’t heard, and I think that’s what Sean has done. So when he asked me to present the film, I realized the power of presentation as Oprah Winfrey came out and really went gangbusters for me.

I’m certainly not Oprah Winfrey, but I think that people that come to follow my cinema, this is as good as my cinema so I don’t understand why they can’t come on and check out Sean’s work.

A lot of people reach a level where they never look back. But here you are reaching back to help a younger filmmaker —
I don’t look at it as giving back. I look at it as helping America find a voice, like, find this new filmmaker. I’m doing a favor to the filmmaker’s audience, people who should be seeing this movie. I’m doing a favor to the public.