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Lee Daniels Discusses Exploring Racism, Classism on ‘Star’: ‘We’re in a Difficult Time in America’

Variety logo Variety 1/11/2017 Elizabeth Wagmeister
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Lee Daniels and the cast of “Star” spoke to reporters on Wednesday at the Television Critics Association press tour on a panel for the new Fox show, which centers on a girl group’s struggle to rise to the top of the music industry.

Though the music-filled “Star” is about a girl group on the surface, the drama explores deeper issues of race relations and classism — subject matter that Daniels described as “stories that are hitting the streets of America right now.”

“We’re going deep into what’s happening outside of the rise of the girl group,” Daniels said at one point throughout the Q&A with press members. “We’re going deep into what’s happening right now, as I know it to be in the churches, in the African-American communities, in America’s community.”

During the panel, Daniels was questioned about recent comments he made during an interview on “The Real” when he explained casting the character, Star, with a Caucasian actress “because I felt that the country, instinctively, I thought, needed to heal. And I thought that this white girl is so fabulous that black people will embrace her and white people will embrace her.” On the daytime show, Daniels also said, “We are truly, I believe, in a civil war…When we understand that we’re all one, will we then understand America.”

Today, Daniels clarified those comments at TCA, saying, “There is no right or wrong to this. I am a 57-year-old black man that came to Hollywood with $7 in his pocket and a dream to dare to dream big. When we were putting this television show together, we talked about inspirations to me,” he said, mentioning “Dreamgirls,” among other projects. “Recently, it dawned on me, why am I putting a white girl (Jude Demorest) in the middle of this black environment with a sister who is half black (Brittany O’Grady) with another singer who is an entitled, very rich black girl (Ryan Destiny) with a transgender (Amiyah Scott) that’s beautiful? Why am I doing that now?” he pondered.

Alluding to President-elect Donald Trump, Daniels continued, “We’re in a difficult time in America. I foresaw where we would be right now. When I said heal the nation, I think it was about personal healing — sometimes you’re misquoted — but it was about bringing these girls and watching these girls come together as a family, as they aspire to their dreams.”

Daniels cleared up that, in no way, was he downplaying the issue of racism during his talk show appearance.

“Though there is racism, I was not saying that there is not racism,” Daniels explained. “Racism is very, very, very real. And you’re talking to someone who has experienced it first-hand. I’m not going to let racism define me. That’s all I can say.”

Scott, who plays a transgender character on “Star,” shared with reporters her own real-life experiences as a transgender woman.

“Being transgender was different for my parents,” she said, adding the she was her father’s only son. “I had certain expectations in my life. It was supposed to go a certain way…to almost realize all of a sudden that wasn’t who I am…that was something difficult to deal with. We did struggle. I’m blessed to have parents who at least love me enough.”

Scott hopes that “Star” can help educate the masses on the transgender community, and even influence opinion. She said, “Shows like this can open up your mind. Although you may feel a certain way about a subject at first, things can change.”

Among other issues touched upon in the show is the subject of classism, specifically within the African-American community. Daniels said he was excited to incorporate that topic through Naomi Campbell and Lenny Kravitz’s characters, whom he called “privileged.”

“Race, it’s a volatile subject right now in this country. But it’s also about classism, too,” Daniels said. “That Fox has enabled me to tell the story and to hire both females and minorities in back of the screen and enabled me again to do it, it fills my heart as much as telling the story.”

Wrapping up the panel with Scott, Campbell, Benjamin Bratt, Queen Latifah, co-creator Tom Dinghy, and executive producer Pamela Oas Williams, Daniels raved that “Star” exposes “a new slice of life in America that I don’t think you’ll see on any other network.”

After the panel, Daniels was pressed on the status of the proposed “Empire” spinoff. Daniels said he was working on it and hoped to bring it to fruition.

“It’s real,” Daniels told Variety. “We are now in discussions,” although he cautioned that the concept is still being sorted out.

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