Film: The Un-Shyamalan

A certain Philly filmmaker has made a career by ending his movies with gimmicky twists, but Lee Daniels — with a little help from actors like Halle Barry and Kevin Bacon — is bringing Hollywood back to reality

While Daniels was casting his first production, Monster’s Ball, in 2000, the search for something real led him to, of all people, Halle Berry. Daniels was skeptical — one of People’s most beautiful as a destitute single mother whose husband dies on Death Row? “Do not come in looking like Halle Berry,” he told her before their first meeting. No jewels, no makeup, no designer labels. He wanted to see her raw. That’s what he got, but not in the way he expected.

“That bitch came in with every fucking diamond she had on. I said, ‘You’re too pretty.’ And she said — I’ll never forget — she shook her head like a black girl and she pointed her finger in my face — in my face, which is unheard-of. Unheard-of. She said, ‘Who the fuck are you to tell me because I’m pretty I can’t fucking be on welfare? And I can’t fucking be a victim? And I can’t have my husband kicking my ass?’ And that bitch was on the money. It made me look at reverse racism. I had a visual image of this [character]. She was downtrodden, slightly overweight. To me, Halle was a black Barbie doll. I didn’t know she had this energy.

“Then,” Daniels continues, “I said, ‘That bitch can get us on Oprah. We gonna do it with her.’”

Berry’s performance, and the film itself, with its complex portraits of passion, prejudice and identity, was a fitting introduction of Lee Daniels to the world, and critics, as he would say, loved this bitch. Monster’s Ball crashed the Oscar party. The Woodsman won two awards at Cannes, and there’s talk of Bacon following Berry to the golden dance. Daniels may never match M. Night Shyamalan’s box office with movies about child molesters, but as Shyamalan’s creative stock dips — after the disappointment of The Village, Entertainment Weekly wondered aloud whether he’s a “one-trick pony” — Daniels is poised to become the most important filmmaker in this city, which has played host to more than 50 feature films since 1992. “Night is the billion-dollar baby,” says Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. “Lee is on the verge of that success.”

If Shyamalan is cinema’s gimmick guy, teasing audiences with a twist in each movie, Daniels is the King of Real. Beginning with The Woodsman, he has shot all his films here, and unlike Shyamalan, he’s not holed up in a multimillion-dollar suburban compound. Daniels says being back in Philly keeps him grounded, and in a town that’s nothing if not stripped of pretension and dripping with honesty — often of the frank, ugly sort — he’s every bit a Philly guy (though more Philadanco than Mummers strut). And his knack for translating life’s uncomfortable realities to the screen has become his trademark.

“There’s a way he tells stories that’s unlike anyone since Paul Thomas Anderson, since Quentin Tarantino, since Steven Soderbergh,” says Shadowboxer star Cuba Gooding Jr. “Lee is the next visionary in cinema. I don’t know if the world is ready for the bluntness of his work.”