Fifty years. It’s been fifty years since the Stonewall uprising on June 28, 1969. Fifty years worth of struggles, pain, blood, sweat, tears, oppression, erasure, rebellion, progression, and much, much more.
Fifty years ago, Lee Daniels was a 10-year-old boy who had just experienced an awakening—he was gay. As LGBTQ Pride Month wraps, I hopped on the phone to speak with Daniels about his role as a creator who has made history through representation in media, the importance of paying homage to those who have come before us, his relationship with the iconic Paris Is Burning documentary and that upcoming “Me Too” show (which is actually a misnomer) everyone’s talking about.
“I remember seeing [the Stonewall rebellion] on the news as a kid, and knowing that it affects me even as a child because I knew I was gay then,” Daniels recalled. “Fun little fact about that, but Judy Garland was buried that night and nobody talks about that. But the gays were not having it that night. Garland was like, the hero. And I think the cops fucked up against the wrong motherfuckers that night.”
“When you think of Sylvia [Rivera] or Marsha [P. Johnson], you think of these [people as] icons,” Daniels noted of the pioneers that paved the way toward today. “I can’t even imagine being in their shoes because if it’s difficult for us right now—people are still getting killed, trans people are still getting killed—what it must have really been like for them. And I think we’re worried right now about the ‘now’—as well we should be, but I don’t think we give homage to the people that were before us, that paved the way so that we could be right where we are right now. Because we have come a long way. In my 45-50 years of [knowing that I was] gay, I’ve seen the change happen. I was at the first Philadelphia Gay Pride [...] and now we have World Pride. I have so many friends that are gone from AIDS that wouldn’t even understand that there was a World Pride, let alone a Pride.”
Additionally, Daniels spoke passionately about late actor Raymond St. Jacques, who he considered as a friend (as one of the first black people he met in Hollywood) and was someone he wishes more people knew about. “I am here because of him” Daniels mused. “I ride on his shoulders.”
As someone whose vast catalogue is inspired by his own life, I had to ask Daniels about the first time he saw himself represented in media. For him, it was Norman … Is That You? starring Pearl Bailey and Red Foxx, as well as NBC’s 1985 miniseries An Early Frost.
One film that stood out to me was his mention of Paris Is Burning. He was not only shaped by that iconic documentary, he lived it. He was, in fact, an extra in the documentary.
“We didn’t know that we were being taped,” Daniels recounted. “We were just living our lives. We were taking care of each other because most of us were dying. Most of us were homeless. I was young, like 16 or 17 [years old].”
As many people know, Daniels’ breakout hit television show Empire made history when it featured the first black gay wedding on network television between Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) and Kai Givens (Toby Onwumere). Even prior to that, though, Daniels felt the most impact when he featured the show’s first big kiss scene involving Jamal. “It was a scary time for me,” Daniels recalled, noting he received death threats and hate mail after the episode’s airing. Or take for instance the documented impact Star has had on the trans community in connection with Cotton (Amiyah Scott) and Miss Bruce (Lawrence Washington).
“What’s great now is that I think the conversation is open,” Daniels said firmly, also noting how social media and technology’s advancement has contributed to that. “I broke down in tears when I saw Gabrielle Union’s husband, [Dwyane Wade] write something about his son. Because I wish that were my father as opposed to putting me in a trash can. [...] And I think this whole Jussie Smollett thing, his innocence, his guilt or whatever, I don’t think that people really understand kids are killing themselves. That doesn’t take away [that they are] killing themselves [and] being bullied.”
“These new kids on the block talking about ‘gay this’, ‘woke this,’ shit, I’m so fucking woke I’m ready to go to sleep. I need a sleeping pill!” Daniels exclaimed. Despite having lived a life that certainly deserves a good rest, Daniels remains on the grind.
One of his upcoming grinds includes a project that had folks talking when it was announced, described as a “Me Too” comedy series in development with Whitney Cummings. However, Daniels wants to clear something up.
“It’s not ‘Me Too,’” Daniels confirmed, firmly. “I wish they would stop saying we’re making a comedy about ‘Me Too,’ there’s nothing funny about ‘Me Too.’ It’s really about three generations of women. For example, what was a date for my grandmother would be assault for my daughter.”
Basically, the upcoming show would explore the nuances between generations and how we’ve evolved with language throughout the changes in our culture, even when it comes to the “N-Word.” Or perhaps, other slurs. So, yes, there will be an uncomfortably honest assessment of sexual assault addressed in the show, but it won’t end there.
For Daniels, it’s all about the risk-taking. Much like his extra-honest sensibility, he did express the possibility of this upcoming show getting him in “a lot of trouble.”
“If my career isn’t at stake, then I’m not doing my job,” he concluded. In addition to the Cummings partnership, Daniels is excited to be working on a “Government vs. Billie Holiday” love and espionage story surrounding her performance of “Strange Fruit;” a Sammy Davis, Jr. miniseries tackling “race in a very complicated way;” and his company will be producing a “Ghetto Cowboy” project with Idris Elba this summer. The man is busy. But, what about when it’s time to have a little fun?
As the LGBTQ+ community commemorates those who have paved the way, Pride Month is full of freedom and celebration. That unabashed joy, in and of itself, is an act of revolution. As such, I did want to ask Daniels his plans for the rest of the month. What kind of (fun) trouble was he getting into?
“Well,” he started, his sly grin peeking through the phone’s speakers. “There’s Black Pride in Los Angeles right now and I’m gettin’ ready to put my cap on. And that’s all I’ve got to say to that.”
Whoop, there it is.