There’s a party going on inside Bryn Mawr’s most extravagant home, courtesy of its owner, Dawn Lenfest, wife of Brook, heir to the Lenfest cable-television fortune. Everyone’s in the basement, or what was once a basement and is now a “media room,” complete with a professional popcorn machine and a 120-inch screen. This is no Blockbuster night, though. Dawn (with her husband, who’s off sailing in the Indian Ocean) is an investor in the movie they’re about to watch, Shadowboxer, filmed in Philly. Its star, Cuba Gooding Jr., isn’t here, but the director is. Lee Daniels. That’s him, sprawled on the floor with a bottle of vino. White carpenter pants, Chuck Taylors, an Overbrook High sweatshirt he probably stole from one of his sisters. Hair like some African Medusa, springing off in all directions. The only other dark-skinned folks in the room are a couple of people he invited, and aside from Daniels and his boyfriend, if anyone else here is gay, they’re keeping it to themselves. Upstairs, Daniels was more like his 45-year-old whirlwind diva self, but as the movie is about to start, his tone shifts from buoyant to concerned. Shadowboxer is his first directorial effort, and it’s still a work-in-progress, months away from release. He hands out comment sheets and asks — pleads, actually — for honesty. Good, bad, doesn’t matter. Just give him something real.
The lights dim, and from the opening credits, there’s no doubt this is a Lee Daniels flick. Interracial relationships aren’t questioned; they just are. Sex is graphic, sometimes taboo. Language is raw. All of which reflects the filmmaker — how Daniels sees life and lives it. Look back at Monster’s Ball, the movie he produced that won Halle Berry an Oscar, cementing Daniels as a talent to be reckoned with. (For a black man in Hollywood who isn’t named Denzel, that’s no small feat.) You’ll see the same themes there. In his follow-up, The Woodsman, in theaters this month, Kevin Bacon plays a pedophile. Recoil at that topic, and Daniels says that one in every four Americans is sexually molested. “No one wants to talk about it,” he says. “Like it fucking doesn’t exist.” Though Shadowboxer is his most commercial film so far, with its murder, torture and graphic sex, it’s not exactly a date movie. It’s warts-and-all, shit-happens, life’s-a-bitch-type stuff.
Daniels turns to his focus group of 15 after the closing credits roll. “I can’t make a movie if I can’t have some honest input,” he says. “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. Turn the knife.” With some coaxing, they start speaking up. Most think there’s too much sex. A debate breaks out over whether a penis shot will evoke the dreaded NC-17 rating. “We can show soft cock,” Daniels says matter-of-factly, before turning to Dawn’s mother: “We cut the masturbation scene, right, mama? Do you like it better?” Not surprisingly, she’s relieved it’s gone. Then one of Brook’s investment-banking pals says he didn’t buy the relationship between a large black nurse and a baby-faced skinny white doctor. “I’ve got news for you,” says one of Daniels’s friends, a black woman. “That’s real life. I don’t know where you’re living.”
After that tense moment, questions are plentiful, but criticism is gentle — not
what Daniels wants. Nothing they can say will be tougher than what he faced in Hollywood, or more painful than the stern hand of his father, a Philly cop, or the life-changing childhood moment he still relives in all its agonizing detail. Days after the feedback session, holed up in his apartment overlooking the Delaware, Daniels swings to the dark end of his rainbow-hued emotional spectrum. “I was really disturbed when I left that screening,” he says. “People didn’t say what they were thinking. I don’t need that shit. I need honesty.”