The imprint that Lee Daniels has made on entertainment is a lesson in climbing the ranks to the top. The director, producer, and screenwriter once owned a nursing agency specializing in helping people living with AIDS and HIV. However, once he met a producer making moves in the industry, Daniels set forth a new career. The hard work paid off because these days, he's hailed as a leader in Black cinematography.
The award-winning filmmaker has taken over the silver and small screens, stacking awards with each new production. Empire was a hit on television, while films like Precious and The Butler sparked cultural conversations. Here, we're looking at seven of Lee Daniels's best projects in no particular order. Is your favorite on the list?
The Butler (2013)
Lee Daniels' The Butler remains one of his most critically acclaimed works. The film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a butler in the White House. His character witnessed the terms of several Presidents, spanning decades. Daniels based his film on an article Wil Haygood wrote for The Washington Post called "A Butler Well Served by This Election" about the real-life White House butler Eugene Allen. The star-studded cast included the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, Mariah Carey, Cuba Gooding Jr., and many more notable names. It went on to win several accolades, including an NAACP Image Award.
The Wonder Years (2021)
The Wonder Years is the most recent show Lee Daniels has produced. This remake debuted in 2021 and takes the plot from the original series, changing some major aspects. This time, the family is Black and lives in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1960s. The show's events are seen from the perspective of 12-year-old Dean, whose internal thoughts and narration are done by Don Cheadle.
Producers Lee Daniels and Saladin K. Patterson created the show to depict "a thriving, middle-class Black family of that era." The episodes are overall comedic, yet still provide insight and commentary on race, gender, politics, class, religion, and other societal topics. In an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Daniels shared he initially did not want to produce it because he was worried he would mess it up. However, Patterson's writing kick-started his confidence.
Concrete Cowboy (2020)
Concrete Cowboy was produced by Lee Daniels and stars Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Clifford "Method Man" Smith Jr., and more. The film takes place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and tells the story of a father and son growing closer through their involvement in the horse-riding community. Director and co-writer Ricky Staub shared how his inspiration to create the movie came from researching the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club and reading Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri. Daniels co-produced the movie and praised it as a "...light in the midst of all this darkness..." at the film's drive-in screening. The movie highlights the struggles members of the Fletcher Street Riding Club dealt with and features members of the organization.
Empire was co-executive produced by Lee Daniels and had two acting titans in its lead roles: Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. Daniels' name in the industry played a role in casting them. The series follows the Lyon family as they fight to gain control over Empire Entertainment as Howard's character, Lucious Lyon, learns he is dying. Empire was a monumental success, with the Season One premiere bringing in 10 million viewers. Further, its finale brought in 17 million viewers. Like most music-centric shows, the series also featured multiple performances. Additionally, production released these songs on streaming services every season. Unfortunately, the series ended primarily because of the legal situation of one of its stars, Jussie Smollett.
This film finds Daniels in both the director and co-producer roles. He adapted his movie from a book called Push by Sapphire. In an article via Entertainment Weekly, Daniels shared he fired several members of his original crew after 20 days of shooting the movie. He said several of them did not respect him, and his director of photography could not light star Gabourey Sidibe's skin accurately. These changes were a key part of the movie's success. It was a hit at two film festivals, and moguls Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey signed on as producers. The film received multiple Academy Award nominations, and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He was the first Black screenwriter to succeed in this category. Moreover, Mo'Nique took home the Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Lee Daniels ventured into the music industry for the second time in this series. He co-created Star with Tom Donaghy, and the series follows a girl group as they navigate the industry while dealing with personal struggles. Multiple notable actors have appeared on the show, adding the power of Daniels' name in the entertainment world. However, Star did not reach the same critical success as Empire, and FOX canceled it after three seasons. Audiences created a GoFundMe page to bring the show back. Daniels heard their cries and tried to shop the series to various other networks like BET. After unsuccessful attempts, he shared that a two-hour movie was in the works to end the series.
Monster's Ball (2001)
This movie is from further back in Daniels's filmography, but some may say it's what got him where he is today. When tackling Monster's Ball, Daniels lacked experience in the industry. He was adamant about making the movie the way he wanted it to be even though he wasn't the director. However, the experience helped him realize he could direct, and that's what he went on to do. This was the first film he ever produced and was a critical success. Lead actress Halle Berry won an Academy Award for Best Actress and is still the only Black woman to receive this award.
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