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Daniels, Lee (b. 1959)  
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When producer-director Lee Daniels received an Oscar nomination for directing Precious (2009), he became the first openly gay African American to be so honored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

As he told the audience at the Cannes International Film Festival, where Precious received a 15-minute standing ovation, "I'm a little homo, I'm a little Euro and I'm a little ghetto." The reference alludes not only to the complex realities of his own life, but also to the three filmmakers he credits with influencing him the most: John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar, and Spike Lee.

The success of his searing yet redemptive film based on the novel Push by Sapphire (Ramona Lofton) vaulted Daniels to the top tier of Hollywood filmmakers, but it was by no means an unpredictable development. As talent agent, producer, and director, Daniels has earned a reputation as a filmmaker of unusual tenacity and as someone who is not afraid of controversial subjects.

Although his projects are generally small-budget independent films about issues that would seem not to be commercially viable, they sometimes return handsome dividends to their investors.

For example, his first movie, the critically acclaimed Monster's Ball (2002), which he produced, not only won an Oscar for lead actress Halle Berry, among numerous other awards, but also parlayed modest production costs into a lucrative commercial success.

He was born Leonardo Louis Daniels on Christmas Eve 1959 in Philadelphia, the oldest of five children born to Clara and William Daniels. His father, a policeman, who had once worked as a bodyguard for Muhammad Ali, was killed in a robbery in 1975 when Daniels was only fifteen.

Daniels' father was physically abusive, frequently beating his wife and eldest son, especially after he became suspicious that his son might be homosexual.

As Daniels recalled, his father beat him out of frustration with the disrespect he received as an African American in a racist society and in the hopes that such treatment would toughen his son for the life that might be in store for him: "One time, I put on my mom's red patent-leather high heels, and he beat me. I knew he loved me, but he thought I wouldn't survive as a black gay guy."

Still, Daniels loved his father, and his death was a jolting shock to him. It took him a long time to forgive his father for his mistreatment, but he came to understand his cruelty and the complicated web of motives behind it.

Moreover, Daniels credits his father as the source of his artistic sensibility, since, despite the older man's propensity for violence, he appreciated books and loved poetry. Nevertheless, Daniels grew up thinking that his father was disappointed in him, a feeling that may have spurred his desire to achieve and to prove himself long after his father's death.

After graduating from high school in West Philadelphia, Daniels studied theater at Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri. However, soon before his junior year, he made the decision to drop out of college and move to Los Angeles, where he hoped to become a screenwriter.

In Los Angeles, Daniels took a job as a receptionist with a nursing agency. He quickly advanced in the company hierarchy, becoming part of management.

He also began a relationship with an older man, who would leave him upon his death a few years later the capital he needed to open his own nursing agency.

His nursing agency soon grew to become one of the largest in Southern California. Among its clients was AIDS Project Los Angeles.

Despite the success of the company, however, Daniels yearned to pursue a career in the movie industry. One of his clients, a film producer, suggested that his business acumen would likely make him a good producer.

To follow his dream, Daniels sold his company for several million dollars and accepted a job as a Hollywood production assistant in order to learn the movie business from the bottom up.

In 1984, after working for a while as a production assistant and, then, as a casting director, including a stint as head of minority casting for Warner Brothers, he established Lee Daniels Entertainment, a talent management agency.

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Lee Daniels at the Vanity Fair celebration for the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Photograph by David Shankbone.
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