For director Lee Daniels, making movies is more than just a job.
“I live my life through my films,” Daniels told a crowd of students Wednesday night in Ronald Tutor Campus Center ballroom. “It’s very therapeutic for me. Every time I do a movie, a little part of me dies — I know that I am closer to death every time I finish a film.”
After selling his health care business at the age of 21, Daniels became a millionaire overnight. He didn’t have to make movies, but he said he did because after an opportunity came up that he couldn’t refuse. Daniels worked in casting the music video for Prince’s song “Kiss,” and the artist was so impressed with his work that he asked him to cast the 1984 film Purple Rain, for which Prince’s album of the same name was a soundtrack.
“Manipulating talent and the audience into make believe was intriguing to me,” Daniels told the Daily Trojan.
Since, Daniel has gone on to direct films including Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Elena Dole, a freshman majoring in theatre, said Daniels’ directorial style and themes of race are effective at educating viewers in a way that is also beautiful to watch on screen.
“It’s really interesting how much art can transform people’s opinions,” Dole said. “It’s incredible how much race can change the way perceive things and bring issues to light. The fact that he can bring to light these issues in a positive way and in a way that so many people can accept them and get involved is also a way that doesn’t make them uncomfortable.”
Daniels told the Daily Trojan that his work has left him fundamentally optimistic about how much society has progressed in terms of accepting people who are different.
“I think we’re at a great pace. There are those that complain that we want more, and of course, we always want more,” he said.
Daniels, who is gay, said that new generations are growing up in a culture of acceptance.
“We are coming to a place where [Daniels’ son] has two dads: one white and one black,” Daniels said. “His perception of homosexuality is normalcy, for a heterosexual kid. I think that that is beautiful.”
The event was sponsored by the Black Student Assembly and the Political Student Assembly, who hoped to bring a fresh perspective on race issues to students.
Justin Bogda, president of the PSA, said Daniels would do just that.
“I thought he would be a great person to have a conversation about civil rights in this country and about how it has changed and evolved, because that’s what we’re having a conversation about at this school,” Bogda said.
Daniels described growing up with an abusive father in an impoverished area of South Philadelphia. He never went to college, but said he got a fresh start when he sold his health care business and began a career in the film industry. Daniels also described spending the money he made on cars and drugs.
“You are all blessed in this room,” he told the audience. “Everything I did I don’t want you to do.”
Bogda said the conversation Daniels led was one that needs to happen more often at USC.
“We’re behind the times with the conversations that we have about sexuality and difference,” he said. “The fact that he made a film that explored that journey in the United States, I thought it would be a really good idea to have that conversation here.”
Follow Nathaniel on Twitter @Haas4Prez2036