Can Lee Daniels find 'Empire'-like success with Atlanta's 'Star'?

This was posted on Tuesday, December 13, 2016 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Lee Daniels, the Academy Award-nominated movie producer, found surprising TV success in 2015 with the meteoric rise of Fox’s soapy hip-hop drama “Empire.”

Although the show has lost considerable steam since then, Fox placed faith in Daniels to create a second hit, hoping to turn him into the next TV producer extraordinaire like Shonda Rhimes or Chuck Lorre.

Daniels decided to go grittier with his new Atlanta-based and -produced show “Star,” which is being given a preview at 9 tonight after the fall finale of “Empire.”

In it, three young women try to become the 2017 answer to Destiny’s Child. Queen Latifah plays their surrogate mom, and Benjamin Bratt (“Law & Order”) becomes their talent agent. Lenny Kravitz guest-stars, along with Naomi Campbell and Tyrese Gibson.

Daniels — who has produced dark films such as “Monster's Ball” and “Precious” — does not deny the pressure placed on him by the network — and himself. “I’m terrified,” he said on set earlier this fall. “Do we have to say this is from the creator of ‘Empire’? I didn’t intend to do television ever. For me to be here again, are you kidding me? I should be doing theater right now but I’m here. I’m going to do the best I can do.”

“Star” feels more realistic than glossy “Empire.” Two sisters escape a neglectful, broken foster care system. One is an ambitious white girl trying to break into R&B. The second is her sensitive, sexually abused biracial younger sister. They join a third girl, a wealthy black teen who leaves her life behind for the art.

Daniels' trepidation may be merited. Early reviews, based on the first three episodes, have been less than stellar. Metacritic average is 44 out of 100. Salt Lake Tribune: " 'Star' is filled with lowest-common denominator dialogue." San Jose Mercury News: "It isn’t as instantly appealing and distinctive as 'Empire' was." Entertainment Weekly: "Unfortunately, 'Star' subverts everything with hollow heaviness and familiar cynicism." The Detroit News: 'With 'Star,' his latest TV project for Fox, [Daniels] is at his tawdriest and messiest."

“I want to make a statement,” Daniels said. “I’m trying to talk about race relations in America. We’re in hard times right now. I want to help heal.”

Bratt said Daniels has the ability to take so many rough elements and “illuminate and dramatize it and in doing so humanize the experience and make it relatable.”

STAR: Pictured L-R: Guest star Chad James Buchanan and Benjamin Bratt in the special premiere of STAR airing Wednesday, Dec. 14 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. STAR makes its time period with an all-new episode Wednesday, Jan. 4 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Annette Brown/FOX

But Daniels includes fun musical set pieces as well. “If you study my body of work, it’s really operatic,” he said. “Music lives in all my stuff, my theater and my films.”

Jude Demorest, who plays the tough lead role with the appropriate name Star, said the trailers are a bit misleading. “It’s a mean trick,” she said. “It looks shiny and glittery like ‘Dreamgirls.’ But we get a chance to talk about stuff that’s important.”

Her own character, she admits, is “extremely narcissistic. It drives her. Her only soft spot is her little sister. She never had control in her life. She thinks fame will solve that.”

STAR: Jude Demorest in the special premiere of STAR airing Wednesday, Dec. 14 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. STAR makes its time period premiere with an all-new episode Wednesday, Jan. 4 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: FOX

Queen Latifah has produced and starred in several movies and TV shows in Atlanta over the years, including “Joyful Noise,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Bessie” and “Single Ladies.” She said she and Daniels have wanted to work together for many years. They’d talk every few months. “Star” intrigued her.

“It involved music,” she said. “It involved gay, straight, trans. It involved women of all ages. My character, Carlotta, has a strong will and a loving heart.”

One of the regular characters is a transgender hairdresser, played by Atlanta’s Amiyah Scott, who is also transgender. She plays Carlotta’s daughter. “I related to her on so many levels,” she said. In the first episode, her character gets beat up.

That scene, she said, “wasn’t fun. It was based on a real-life issue. Transviolence is very prevalent right now. It’s terrible. I think a light needs to be shined on things like that. It goes hand in hand with Black Lives Matter. We deserve better. We deserve respect.”


"Star," 9 p.m. Wednesday, December 14, Fox, after "Empire" fall finale

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.