Last evening Lee Daniels was honored by Outfest with the prestigious Visionary Award, which is conferred to individuals who have made a significant contribution to LGBT arts, media, and culture. Daniels’s thoughtful, provocative oeuvre has earned him the distinction of being the only openly gay black filmmaker to ever be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, and his achievements were celebrated by family, friends, and fellow LGBT entertainment professionals, including Shane Bitney Crone, Dan Bucatinsky, Guillermo Diaz, Darren Stein, George Northy, Michael J, Willett, and Raven-Symoné.
Set in the Old World opulence of downtown Los Angeles's Orpheum Theatre, where Judy Garland first took the stage as a young girl, the Outfest Legacy Awards also honored films including Stonewall and Paris Is Burning, which demonstrate the importance of the preservation of LGBT films.
But the evening also marked its own milestones in LGBT history. Raven-Symoné, who had stuck her foot out of the closet door on Twitter earlier this year, stood proudly onstage as a presenter, specifically mentioning the achievements of “our community” in her introduction of the film Behind Every Good Man, a seminal portrait of queer life in the 1960s.
Kirsten Schaffer, the executive director of Outfest, took the stage to announce that the Legacy Project, an LGBT film preservation project the organization runs with the University of California, Los Angeles, has collected more than 30,000 samples of moving images, many of which will be made available to students in California, thanks to the state’s newly passed FAIR Education Act.
“With the FAIR Act, the newly mandated instruction of LGBT history in public schools, we have an opportunity to share stories from the Legacy Project collection with young people,” Schaffer said, “so that the lives and achievements of Harvey Milk and Bayard Rustin … are taught alongside those of Cesar Chavez and Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, so that we ensure that LGBT history is remembered.”
Cuba Gooding Jr., who collaborated with Daniels in Shadowboxer and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, attended the ceremony as a presenter to support his friend. Shortly before the ceremony, he spoke about the parallels between racism and homophobia that continue to affect the entertainment industry.
“I’ve been a fan of Lee Daniels before he was a director,” Gooding said. “I love him. He’s a brother. And I have a lot of friends of mine, who, some parts of their careers have been hindered by the fact that they’ve been labeled due to their sexuality, due to their race. Any award that acknowledges their talent and their artistry, I’m down to support.”
Introducing Daniels onstage, Gooding scored one of the biggest laughs of the evening by paraphrasing his friend about the walls created by discrimination.
“He has famously said that being a filmmaker is very hard. Being a black filmmaker is very, very hard. And being a black gay filmmaker, well, let’s just say that when God made that brother, he laughed so hard he peed a little.”
From a filmed introduction on the set of American Horror Story: Coven, actress Gabourey Sidibe, who launched into stardom after Daniels cast her as the lead in Precious, lent her voice to laud her former director.
“He’s the father of my career,” she said. “He created me. … He took a chance on me.”
After a stirring medley of scenes from Daniels’s past projects, including Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Precious, The Paper Boy, and Shadowboxer (actor Drew Droege, who spoofs Chloë Sevigny in viral Internet videos, later bemoaned the omission of “Stephen Dorff’s naked pool cue scene” from the reel), Jane Fonda made a surprise appearance. Daniels had asked her to attend mere hours before the ceremony began, and the actress, clad in a jumpsuit shimmering with patterns of leopard, zebra, and giraffe, walked onstage to a standing ovation from the crowd.
“I’ve lived a long time, and I have seen too many lives destroyed and distorted by homophobia,” said Fonda, who portrayed Nancy Reagan in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. “And I pray with all my heart that I live to see the day when people can come out freely, safely, and be accepted by every strata of society.”
She embraced Daniels as he walked out onstage, the crowd once again rising in wild applause. The director, emotional and momentarily speechless, thanked the LGBT community for its support.
“You have been there for me when even the NAACP has not. I thank you, brothers and sisters in this room, from the bottom of my heart,” Daniels told the room. “Cuba took the words right out of my mouth. It’s very difficult being … a black gay man in Hollywood. They don’t really take you seriously. They call you ‘camp’… [Well], ‘camp’ is my work, and I’m proud of it.”
Daniels, taking a long moment of emotional silence that spurred another round of cheers and applause, thanked his partner, Fisher, who was in the audience, as well as his children, Clara and Liam, “for telling me the truth about my movies.”
In a quiet moment before the ceremony began, Daniels remarked to The Advocate on the significance of the Outfest award.
“It comes from family. It comes from the heart,” Daniels said. “Hopefully, I can touch young filmmakers that are like me, that see that their dreams can come true too.”
See photos of Lee Daniels, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., and more on the following pages.
Outfest executive director Kirsten Schaffer with 2013 Visionary Award honoree Lee Daniels, Jane Fonda, and Outfest board member Scotch Ellis Loring.