It’s not quite noon at Lee Daniels’s ultra-modern three-bedroom riverfront pad, decorated sparingly with a neon crucifix from the Shadowboxer set and a roller-derby pinball machine. He’s got company — his assistant has set up a screening of The Woodsman for a guest — yet Daniels is still in bed after a late night of final edits on Shadowboxer. Around 1 p.m., he finally emerges, every bit the gracious host in a gold terry cloth robe and checkered pajama pants. When he talks, he puts his hand on your shoulder, then pauses to tell you he has the same sweater, only by Ralph Lauren, and that it’s really worth spending extra to get it, and you should tell your girlfriend to buy you one. That’s partly why he’s been so successful — you can be sure he would have said the same thing to Clinton if he’d been wearing that sweater on the stoop in Harlem.
Along with this unflinching candor come the demands of a perfectionist, and anyone who knows him says he can be a terror, throwing fits and barking orders, or just being over-the-top, like the time at Sundance he sent a friend on a search for beaver fur to trim his snow-white coat. Daniels makes no apologies for his on-set demands or his daily dramatics. “I’m loud and abrasive,” he says. “Not from a place of arrogance, just from a place of emotion and passion and the moment.” Sharon Pinkenson says his aggressive attitude is key to his success as a producer: “When he was raising money for The Woodsman, I can’t tell you how many times I heard him yell, ‘Just give me the money!’ He intimidates people, and sometimes they just give him the money.”
Fur-trimmed coats aside, as tough as Daniels can be on the people he works with, it’s always in the pursuit of what he simply calls “honest material,” which always reflects some aspect of himself. When he scolds his kids, it’s his dad talking. When he rips into his actors, his directors — or even his assistant, who caught hell when the hoagie he procured was missing mayo — you can imagine how Officer Daniels sounded when his son misbehaved. You can literally see it in Shadowboxer, when a young Cuba Gooding gets a vicious beating from his father. Reality, in all its shades and hues, in all its gritty exposures, is this man’s inspiration, and, for him, unlike some of the folks in the Lenfest cineplex, it’s the lens though which he views the world.
That’s why, every now and then, he sits alone in front of his television and plays a 20-year-old videocassette. Grainy surveillance video from inside a West Philly bar rolls, and Leonardo Daniels won’t let himself look away. He sometimes wonders where he’d be if this video didn’t exist — if he’d be living out his father’s dreams instead of his own. The footage is more real than anything he’s ever brought to the big screen — a tape loop of the turning point in his life that both devastated him and offered him his first taste of freedom, of possibility. It’s complicated. It reminds him of who he is, and what has propelled him from rowhomes to the front rows of the Academy Awards. “I hated him, I loved him, I feared him, I respected him,” he says of his father. “He was abusive, but he was a cop, and he was afraid I’d turn out like the kids who shot him. That tape reminds me of what a hero is, yet he was human. That’s the complexity I try to achieve in my work. It explains who I am.”