Lee Daniels, the creator of the Fox music series Empire and the upcoming Star, has an incredible understanding of how to serve up some TV drama in bespoke suits and fur coats and make a hit of a show. He does not, however, have quite the same grip on the state of race in the United States. Case in point: a recent interview he gave to the New York Times about Star.
The article opens with Daniels overseeing the filming of scene from Star in which Queen Latifah and Naomi Campbell’s characters duke it out in a county jail waiting room:
“It’s all fabulous,” Mr. Daniels said. “The physical altercation…is even better than I thought it was going to be. You see two different classes of black women, and yet the rich one pushes the poor one. So much privilege!”
If you’ve tilted your head slightly at Daniels taking such glee at the preposterous notion of a rich person stooping so low as to physically harass a poor person even though rich people fight all the time in Empire, prepare to tilt further.
He also throws some dramatic shade on other black shows that happen to be about the music industry, asking questions like, “Which one’s The Get Down?” and “Do they sing in Atlanta?” He apparently had no words for Vinyl, which he was also asked about.
Daniels has championed Star, about a girl group working their way up in the Atlanta music scene, as a show that will help the country heal in such a tumultuous time.
But from this interview, Daniels seems to see healing as not necessarily about validating all aspects of the black experience that are constantly under attack so much as it is about making white people feel good about themselves?:
“I wanted to show a white girl that had some swag” as “part of the healing process…I wanted white people to feel cool. I wanted them to not be made fun of. We are one.”
I wonder if he’s checked out what white supremacists are up to at the moment, because being aggressively white has never been cooler than it is right now.
He also described how he initially made Star under the assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to become president, but after we elected Donald Trump, he shifted gears. Instead of making the show more political, he toned things down, rendering the show an "escape." Saying that making a conscious effort to render white people "cool" is an act of depoliticization doesn't add up—it's inherently political.
Daniels is an artist and can do whatever he wants. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of a show featuring a poor white character in a largely black story. But to say that we need to help white people "feel cool" to help solve the race problem in this country is a misunderstanding of race and media in 2016.
I'm not convinced people watch Empire, or will watch Star, for a lesson in critical race theory—Daniels, especially after this interview, doesn't seem all that interested in the idea anyway (he put Taraji in a gorilla suit!). And lest we forget, Lee Daniels doesn’t "have time to deal with racism."
But for someone who is apparently trying to pander to white audiences, he sure doesn’t seem to want to be embraced by white America, reducing conversations like #OscarsSoWhite to undue complaints:
“Oscars so white! So what? Do your work. Let your legacy speak and stop complaining, man. Are we really in this for the awards?
“If I had thought that way—that the world was against me—I wouldn’t be here now…”
“These whiny people that think we’re owed something are incomprehensible and reprehensible to me. I don’t expect acknowledgment or acceptance from white America. I’m going to be me.”
Something tells me he had to get some type of acceptance from at least some of white America in order to get a TV show on Fox, but OK. To reduce #OscarsSoWhite to just grumbling about not getting a participation trophy as opposed to a call to acknowledge talented people of color who challenge systemic racism in the media and entertainment industry is quite the misreading.
Maybe he’s onto something with just rejecting white institutions, but for Daniels to claim he wants to bring the country together under the banner of “We are one,” only to turn around and scold people for recognizing their exclusion seems strange. Doing so actually seems more like a regurgitation of the white American rhetoric that undermines black activism all the time.