Lee Daniels, the co-creator of the Fox drama Empire, has been known to be straightforward and honest, both in person and through his work. And he didn’t hold back during an appearance at the 33rd Annual PaleyFest at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
According to USA Today, a screening of the mid-season premiere of Empire opened the festival held on Friday. This was followed by an hour-long panel discussion moderated by Entertainment Tonight‘s Kevin Frazier with Daniels and cast members such as Terrence Howard and Gabourey Sidibe.
The show’s first season finale had about 18 million viewers, but the second season episodes have only received about nine million viewers, as reported by Entertainment Tonight. Criticism about the storylines has been a factor in the lower ratings.
Frazier then asked Daniels about why Empire took a “left turn” during the second season.
“It was growing pains. I think it would have happened to any show and I think that though we still remained No. 1, we’re learning,” said Daniels, who wondered how can there be great art without testing things out.
He continued, “It’s just a process. It’s trial and error. And, at the end of the day, we came back.”
This response was met with a huge applause from the audience.
Cast member Terrance Howard also applauded the scripts and talked about the pressure of creating stories that were grounded, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
“We are a nighttime soap opera. Somehow we have to find a way to keep it grounded with the speed,” said Howard, who was also straightforward with his responses. “Every week we hit a hurdle that most people would trip over, but we’re able to manage that.”
Lee Daniels also took questions from the audience during the Q&A session about how to break into the industry and how he feels African Americans should reach their goals, according to The Advocate. He also addressed the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
“I don’t have time to deal with racism… Am I delusional to say that there’s not racism in America? Look at f*****g Donald Trump,” said Daniels, to another huge round of applause from the audience.
Daniels continued, “I don’t have time to blame Paramount, or Sony, or Fox or whomever. I get my own money. I get my own actors. I write my own scripts… I make my own way, and I don’t want to hear, ‘Woe is me. They ain’t treating me right.'”
Daniels noted that African Americans will hear many “nos” because they aren’t “part of the system.”
“You’re an outsider. You’ll always be an outsider, because of the color of your skin,” said Daniels. “This is the way of the world… Kick the door open, and don’t take no for an answer.”
The Guardian reported that, one audience member bravely asked if Lee Daniels had any jobs as a writer’s assistant. He gave out an email address for his company.
“Television shows, especially ones as popular and visceral as Empire, inspire their viewers beyond just entertaining them,” said Dave Schilling of The Guardian, who described the second season as “a return to form.”
Schilling continued, “In some cases, they help them dream of being more than what they are.”
Lee Daniels also spoke openly about the difficulties he faced in trying to get Empire on the air, after several networks turned it down, according to Entertainment Tonight. Fox picked up the show, and its pilot was the highest rated premiere in three years for the network.
“It’s an honor to see people of color who are not only [on TV] in the homes of Americans, but in Brazil and Spain and Italy,” said Daniels. “They’re getting a sneak peek into our world and being a part of the African American experience.”
And Lee Daniels has been honored for his work with a Television and Film Award from the 2016 BET Honors on March 5, which celebrates the achievements of African Americans.
(Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)