Lee Daniels took the SXSW stage Sunday morning without anything prepared, but he still had plenty to say.
In an improvised speech based on talking points written for Daniels by his publicist, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker and “Empire” creator discussed everything from his rough childhood to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and Donald Trump’s presidency.
“We let this man into office,” Daniels said of Trump. “We are responsible for it. He is our karma.”
The brief statement was preceded by a more careful commentary on the Oscars, with Daniels addressing recent comments he made about the perceived racial bias in Academy Awards voting.
“Maybe I don’t understand the Oscars hashtag ‘#SoWhite […] because I paid my own way,'” Daniels began, referencing the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter hashtag. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I know I’ll read about it tomorrow. [But] I believe we’ve created a generation [that] feels entitled.”
“No one owes me nothing,” he continued. “The first time I ever had to answer to anybody was for ‘Empire,’ and along the way I’ve been breaking barriers and getting Oscars for people. The only reason I did ‘Empire’ was to make some money.”
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“No one in Hollywood owes me anything,” Daniels said. “I owe me something. […] I’m a 57-year-old man who watched his dad be called a nigger and watched him cry. So I know racism is real, but I’m not going to let it define me or stop me.”
Daniels wrapped up the topic by applauding writers and directors who create their own material.
“That’s why I applaud these young filmmakers who go out and do their own thing, so you can take Hollywood to the bank when it comes to selling your shit.”
Daniels was frank with the audience throughout his hour-long keynote address. Stepping behind the podium in a black t-shirt, black letterman’s jacket, and black-rimmed glasses, Daniels began candidly, repeating himself a few times before getting into the flow of his speech.
“I have nothing prepared for you,” Daniels said. “No disrespect. […] I’m going to tell you exactly how I feel and tell you what’s going on with me right now.”
The speech was structured around random moments when Daniels would stop and check his publicist’s notes, making sure he was covering what needed to be covered.
“Your story,” Daniels read to begin. “Coming to Hollywood with nothing and knowing no one.”
After describing himself as a “wind-up doll,” Daniels did as instructed and shared his arduous journey from the projects in Philadelphia to hiding out in the back of a church, homeless, upon first arriving in Los Angeles. From there, he started working as a receptionist before starting his own nursing business, which he eventually sold for “millions” after being invited to work as a production assistant at Warner Bros.
“I rolled onto the Warner Bros. lot smoking a cigarillo, wearing an Armani jacket, driving a Porsche — and I was a PA,” Daniels said.
His first film was Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and Daniels described how the late artist protected him on set.
“Every time Warners fired me, he would hire me,” Daniels said. “I don’t even think I have a credit on the movie. I have to check IMDB.” [He is not credited on IMDB.]
But his relationship with the studio steadily improved.
“Warners was happy with the work I’d done, and they created this title: Head of Minority Talent,” Daniels said, pausing afterward as the crowd audibly groaned. But Daniels was happy to be in the industry and helping black talent find work.
“It was so frustrating to me to watch people like me be unemployed,” Daniels said.
From there, he talked about his film and television career, noting films like “Monster’s Ball,” “Precious,” and “The Paperboy” (which he cited as his favorite).
To end the speech, Daniels was talking about his “Precious” star when the crowd pointed out she was in the audience. At his urging, Gabourey Sidibe joined him behind the podium.
“You’re like a father to me, it’s so weird,” Sidibe said. “You will always be with me for every decision I ever make.”
“Thanks Gabby,” Daniels said. And after a quick thank you to the crowd, Daniels walked briskly off the stage as the audience began applauding.
For more on the panel, IndieWire encourages reading this Twitter thread, which accurately captured the spirit of the event.
IndieWire will be reporting live from Austin throughout the 2017 SXSW Festival. Keep checking in for updates, and take a look at all our reviews, interviews, and panel coverage here.