Lee Daniels Makes Directorial Debut with 'Shadowboxer'

Hollywood producer Lee Daniels talks with Ed Gordon about two of his most challenging, and controversial projects, Monster's Ball and The Woodsman. His directorial debut, Shadowboxer, is out now.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Filmmaker Lee Daniels seems to head right for the fire. First, he produced Monster's Ball, the story of a black woman who falls in love with a racist death row guard. Despite the odds, the film was a critical and box office success. Next up, The Woodsman, about a pedophile struggling to change his life.

His third movie, and his directorial debut, opens today. Shadowboxer is the story of a romance between two killers, a young man and his stepmother. Lee Daniels talked to NPR's Ed Gordon about his drive to push the envelope at all costs.

Mr. LEE DANIELS (Director, Shadowboxer): Certainly, the offers don't come as frequently as they had been where they pay me big bucks or have offered me big bucks to do Who's My Baby's Cousin's Daddy and stuff. But what they want is something that I'm not willing to give, which is a stereotype of an African-American.

And I get flak from both ends, from African-Americans and also from the system. But at the end of the day, I feel very comfortable in telling the truth.

ED GORDON, host:

Flak in what way from - one would assume what Hollywood may give you flak on -but what does the African-American community give you flak on?

Mr. DANIELS: Well, I mean, you know, it started Halle and I with this whole Oscar thing in that we really couldn't enjoy the moment because people said that she didn't deserve the Oscar, African-Americans. And it was traumatizing because at the end of the day, this was a woman that I knew, this was a relative that I knew.

And I think that as African-Americans oftentimes we have to put ourselves on pedestals as opposed to really looking at ourselves and trying to understand ourselves and become better people. We always have to be on pedestals.

And I remember it affected me on my second film because I had offered Sam Jackson the role that I gave to Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman. And my mother said to me, please don't have an African-American playing a pedophile. And I was like, what? Why? Why so? Why not? Because there are African-American pedophiles. She just said I'm not - don't come to my house if you do that. So I gave it to Kevin Bacon.

GORDON: So in a sense - and I'm curious how you see your role of protector of image, if you will, of African-Americans because I know the controversy around Halle was, for many African-Americans or some African-Americans, the idea that they didn't want her to win the Oscar based on the role she played.

Some saw her as, I don't know, for lack of a better term, a ho, in one sense. As you say, the pedophile, to an African-American, many people feel, look, we got a hard enough row to hoe in terms of imagery. How much do you feel responsible in knowing that is the case in some people's minds?

Mr. DANIELS: My characters give life to real people. And I can't wait for people to tell me that what I'm doing is wrong. I think it's not a good thing.

GORDON: How much do you believe, Lee, that the trauma in your own life plays to the notion of the traumatic side of life that you show in the films that you pick? We should note that your father died when you were 13, killed. He was a police officer killed in a robbery. I'm one who lost my father at an early age - at 11 - and you never really fully recover from that, and certainly from a violent death.

How much do you believe that plays a part in your development of your films?

Mr. DANIELS: I didn't know that about you. And I think that it certainly does. I don't think you really ever recover. You know, what happened, my father was also abusive physically to me because he didn't want me to become a writer and he thought that that was not a masculine thing to do. And he thought that I would amount to pretty much of nothing.

And so I was abused and I think that it's therapeutic. My work is therapeutic. Monster's Ball, Woodsman and Shadowboxer, because I don't go to therapy and I sort of live life through my films.

GORDON: Let's talk about the new film, Shadowboxer.

Mr. DANIELS: Shadowboxer.

GORDON: It's a stellar cast that you've put together. We'll talk about that, but it really explores the romantic and criminal relationship between a son and stepmother. Give me a thumbnail sketch of the movie if you can.

Mr. DANIELS: It's about a mother and a stepson who are killers, contract killers, and they're also lovers. And she's dying of cancer. And something happens that turns their life upside down so that they understand, especially the son, that it's not about killing anymore.

As with Monster's Ball, you know, we were able to sort of empathize with the racist or understand the racist. And with The Woodsman we were able to empathize and understand the mindset of a pedophile. In this film, we were sort of able to understand the mindset of a killer.

And these are all people that I know, that I grew up, and these are people that I understand. So I was sort of reliving my childhood with this film.

(Soundbite of movie, Shadowboxer)

Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actor) (As Rose): Who's gonna take care of you, Mikey?

Mr. CUBA GOODING JR. (Actor) (As Mikey): You're telling me I don't take care of myself?

Ms. MIRREN (As Rose): I'm leaving.

Mr. GOODING JR. (As Mikey): Nobody wants to die, Rose. So they convince themselves there's something else after this.

Ms. MIRREN (As Rose): You leave something behind.

Mr. GOODING JR. (As Mikey): Tomorrow's your last day.

Ms. MIRREN (As Rose): Let's take a trip.

Mr. GOODING JR. (As Mikey): Hmm?

Ms. MIRREN (As Rose): A nice trip.

Mr. GOODING JR. (As Mikey): Where do you want to go?

Ms. MIRREN (As Rose): You know where I really like to go? Coney Island. Never been there. Will you take me there?

Mr. GOODING JR. (As Mikey): No. I won't go there.

Ms. MIRREN (As Rose): You won't go there?

Mr. GOODING JR. (As Mikey): I said a nice trip.

Mr. DANIELS: There's a lady that lived around the corner from me when I was growing up that was a killer. Now, we knew it. We never spoke about it. And she would give us cookies and stuff but she - outside of being a killer, she had other things. She was sort an illegal sort of entity. And I liked her, and so did the other kids on the block. She took good care of us.

GORDON: You work in this with Cuba Gooding Jr. in this movie, along with Mo'Nique. And we should note that this is not a, quote, African-American movie. It is one that really goes beyond race or gender, social and economic boundaries, and it tells a story of the intricacies of life.

Mr. DANIELS: What I love about this film is that, you know, it was written all white and that bored me. I mean, the character Mo'Nique plays a crack addict. And the character was written for a 23-year-old white model sort of chick, and that bored me.

My sister is a recovering addict and she was overweight and she was able to -all of her boyfriends were young, white boys, and Mo'Nique sort of plays that character for me.

Macy Gray, I think she's incredible in the film. She plays a sex addict. Cuba Gooding is his back to Boyz n the Hood time. So it was - we go in there and we do it gangster style and it's fun.

GORDON: Let me ask you this: what is it about Lee Daniels that says whatever you take on, I'm going to be successful. And if that's the case, did you get that from any particular person?

Mr. DANIELS: I got it from my dad, who told me that my dreams could not come true. And so there are far more talented people than I am out here that are kids, that are African-Americans - that I just want to tell them, you know what, you can do it, you can do it and you can do it by keeping it real and you don't have to go to Hollywood and you can make your films in Harlem and you can make your films for $2. And as long as you believe in yourself, nobody can stop you.

And I don't know whether everybody likes the films that I do. I know that I love them, and I believe the way that I raise my kids that they will love them, and that's what most important to me.

GORDON: Well, certainly, Lee Daniels, with every film we see your fans and the numbers of them grow. And we're looking forward to the latest, Shadowboxer, and we appreciate your time. Good to talk to you.

Mr. DANIELS: Thank you, sir.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Ed Gordon speaking with film producer Lee Daniels. Shadowboxer, Daniels' directorial debut, open in theatres today.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Farai Chideya. Ed Gordon will be back on Monday. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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