Lee Daniels Breaks Silence on Racism in Hollywood

Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels had some words of tough love for people of color aspiring to a career in Hollywood.

The black and gay Empire co-creator broke his silence about racism in the entertainment industry during a Friday panel at PaleyFest, an annual festival celebrating television, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

"I don't have time to deal with racism... Am I delusional to say that there's not racism in America? Look at fucking Donald Trump," Daniels said during a Q&A with audience members, several of whom asked for advice on breaking into the industry. In response to the criticism of the GOP presidential candidate, the crowd burst into applause.

"Here's the bottom line. The minute that I embrace it, it becomes real to me," he continued. "I don't have time to blame Paramount, or Sony, or Fox or whomever. I get my own money. I get my own actors. I write my own scripts... I make my own way, and I don't want to hear, 'Woe is me. They ain't treating me right.'"

"Get off your asses and do it," he advised.

Another audience member asked Daniels how he would advise African-Americans, in particular, to accomplish their goals.

"People are going to tell you no, because you're not part of the system," Daniels responded. "You're an outsider. You'll always be an outsider, because of the color of your skin. This is the way of the world... Kick the door open, and don't take no for an answer."

"See that exit door?" he also told a 12-year-old boy who asked what he would tell an aspiring young actor. "Run out that back door if you don't want to eat, breathe, sleep, dream, be, your whole existence, because there's nothing but rejection. And so you have to make it your life."

Just weeks beforehand, the Academy Awards, which had been criticized for its all-white nominees under the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, had been held at the same venue. On Friday, however, the stage was filled with diverse representation from Empire's cast, producers, and writers, among them out actor Jussie Smollett, Terrence Howard, Bryshere Y. Gray, Trai Byers, Gabourey Sidibe, and out writer Ilene Chaiken (The L Word). 

Taraji P. Henson, who plays the popular character of Cookie on Empire, was absent, in order to film Hidden Figures. The movie, which also stars Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner, tells the story of the unsung African-American female mathematicians who helped NASA launch its first space missions.

The subject of sexuality did not come up during the panel discussion, although Empire does have several LGBT characters and storylines. Notably, Jussie Smollett's character, Jamal, came out as gay in the show's first season. Daniels has incited controversy in the past for discussing how he wanted his show to "blow the lid" off of the "rampant" homophobia in the black community.

One audience member, citing a resume that included The Fosters and praising Chaiken for her writing on The L Word, asked the panel pointblank how she might procure a job as a production assistant on the new season of Empire. Daniels referred her to an email address: [email protected].

PaleyFest, which is organized by the Paley Center for Media, runs through March 20 in Los Angeles. See the full lineup of events at PaleyFest.org.

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