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Lee Daniels: Star Saw the 'Civil War' Coming

Lee Daniels: Star Saw the 'Civil War' Coming

Lee Daniels

The out writer discusses his new musical drama's transgender storyline and the role of entertainment in the wake of Donald Trump's election.


Empire was in television's vanguard in many respects. Its first season was groundbreaking for its portrayal of a black gay man, Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett), and his coming out to his father, the hip-hop mogul Lucious (Terrence Howard). A ratings hit, the Fox series also demonstrated to Hollywood that diversity both in front of and behind the camera could be a winning formula.

The out series cocreator, Lee Daniels, has now taken intersectionality to audacious and entertaining new heights in Star. His new Fox musical drama, which debuted Wednesday night in a special preview, follows three young women on their journey to girl-group stardom. The series, like Empire, is bold in how it upends stereotypes and expectations.

The main character, Star (Jude Demorest), is a poor white teen who escapes foster care with her biracial sister, Simone (Brittany O'Grady). Another member of the group, Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), is black and comes from privilege. Star's godmother, Carlotta (Queen Latifah), is a singer in her church and the owner of a beauty shop, who grapples with the identity of her transgender daughter, Cotton (Amiyah Scott). Race, class, gender, and religion are in constant collision in the greater Atlanta area, where the series is set.

For Daniels -- speaking at a recent Los Angeles screening -- Star has arrived at just the right time for a U.S. audience still reeling from the unexpected election of Donald Trump as president as well as the spike in hate-crime violence across the country

"I was a step ahead of the game with this," Daniels said. "I saw ... the beginnings of the civil war prior to Trump in office. And so for me, this is about race and race relations and healing the American people. I wanted to do it through music."

"I think that right now we need to escape," he added. "We need to escape from the pain that we are all in."

Star is one of a few recent musical productions that has taken on new meaning since the election, including La La Land and NBC's Hairspray Live!,whose cast also spoke out about the musical's history and power to heal. However, Daniels's introduction was notable for his reference to a "civil war." After the screening, The Advocate asked Daniels what he meant by the phrase.

"The way my gay brothers and sisters were being killed, the way black people were being killed, we are in a civil war," Daniels explained. "The reason that I made Star is that I knew we were on the precipice of something major. I had no idea it was this major."

Violence against women, LGBT people, and people of color takes center stage in Star's pilot. In one scene, Star stabs her sister's foster father while he is raping her and leaves him for dead. In another, Cotton is assaulted by a man after he learns she is transgender. The latter storyline taps into several issues faced by trans people that don't receive enough airtime on network television, including record-high rates of violence and murder.

In terms of visibility, Star's casting of transgender model Amiyah Scott for the part is also a victory in LGBT representation. It pushes back against "transface," the criticized practice of giving trans roles to cisgender actors. Transparent actor Jeffrey Tambor, in his recent speech at the Emmy Awards, criticized this practice earlier this year.

Star's transgender storyline would not have been possible without the success of Empire, which also prominently featured an out actor (Smollett) in an LGBT role, said Daniels. The public response to it remains to be seen. Looking back, Empire's gay plot was not without controversy. In 2015, Daniels remarked to some backlash that he wanted his show to "blow the lid" off of the "rampant" homophobia in the black community. With Star, Daniels also intends to delve even deeper into the intersectional issues faced by vulnerable communities.

"I thought Empire laid the foundation for me to tell this story," said Daniels. "I had to go even further for our people." To this end, Star will showcase subjects rarely featured on network television, like "that within the black community, there is racism ... light-skinned, black-skinned, dark-skinned, that thing. And ... there's homophobia within the gay community."

And like Jamal in Empire's first season, Cotton has her own road to travel in finding acceptance with her family and her mother, Carlotta. By undergoing this journey, Daniels hopes she will also change real-life hearts and minds in favor of equality.

"What's so wonderful about Amiyah's story, who is playing this character, is ... she comes from a different [background]," Daniels said. "What she's had to do to become the person that she is, it breaks my heart. She speaks to that person, and what she's had to go through. So we intend on telling that story in a very powerful way ... so that America can embrace her."

Trump's election has also affected how Daniels perceives his own role as a writer and producer, and how he will use the platform given to him. His goals are both to entertain and heal, while also staying personally grounded in turbulent times. This is no small task.

"I think I understand now why people said during the Vietnam War and during wars, people told stories in a different way to escape," Daniels said. "Because I can't turn on the news. I can't turn on the news since the election night, and I find myself really wanting to escape."

"The only thing that has saved me is this bubble that I'm in, this world that I'm in. And I know I'm able, through my writing, [to] affect even one or two people with the truth. And hopefully change will come of it."

Star's official premiere is January 4. Watch the trailer below.

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.
Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.