He is the Academy Award winning filmmaker of films like Precious: based on the novel Push by Sapphire, The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Monster’s Ball, and the producer of the hit television series EMPIRE and the soon to be released STAR on Fox, but since the earliest days of the epidemic writer/director/ producer Lee Daniels has also been an HIV/AIDS activist.
“People know me as Lee Daniels the filmmaker. But they don’t really know of my early beginnings when I had a nursing agency prior to that, as I was directing theater,” says Daniels, 56. “I had the first nursing agency under contract with AIDS Project Los Angeles over 30 years ago. I had people taking care of people with HIV because people didn’t want to touch them.
“I’m a gay Black man. Everything I do, everything I say, everything I utter—my work— speaks to that. Even in a subliminal way I can’t help but to articulate who it is that I am,” Daniels says. “Whether it’s Jane Doe walking down the street, I’m going to give you the perspective of a gay Black man—that’s the lens that I see. So Empire and everything you ever see of any of mine: Butler, Precious, Monster’s Ball is from that perspective. I’m winking at the camera.” Monster’s Ball, was Lee Daniels Entertainment’s feature film debut, and make Daniels the sole African-American producer of an Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated film.
As someone who has been involved in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in his life and his art, Daniels worries about the current cultural and political climate. He recalls the 1980s—the fear, the stigma, the waiting for the other shoe to drop, the wondering when it was going to be him. “Everyone was dying around me—all of my friends. None of them did anything I did not do and more. It could have been me. That thought is never far from my mind.”