Lady Sings the Blues Again: The Story Behind 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' (2024)

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Director Lee Daniels was in the midst of wrappingup his latest movie — The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which tells the story of the late, troubled jazz singer and how “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching protest song she introduced to the world, brought her both triumph and troubles — when he noticed an unsettling parallel. He suddenly got a firsthand look at just how timely his new film project was. “We were in the middle of editing and that [George Floyd’s death] happened,” he recalls. “People were sending me [protest] videos of people singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in the middle of the street. It was crazy.”

Since her death in 1959 of complications from years of drug and alcohol abuse, Holiday has remained a lingering presence in pop culture, and her unhurried, hypnotically forlorn phrasing can be heard in the work of Erykah Badu, Valerie June, and many other unconventional soul singers. “She’s more than just a musical icon,” says singer Andra Day, who covered “Strange Fruit” in 2017. “And people are just starting to discover that. They really made her into just a tragic drug addict who sang jazz. She’s more than just a musical icon.”

That re-evaluation will likely intensify with The United States vs. Billie Holiday, the first Holiday biopic since Diana Ross played the late, great singer in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. (It begins streaming on Hulu on February 26th.) With Day making her acting debut in the lead, the movie doesn’t shy away from the turbulent aspects of Holiday’s life — one filled with substance abuse, drug arrests, jail time, and a series of abusive relationships. “Sometimes you say, ‘Oh, girlfriend, please get some therapy!’ ” laughs Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote the script. “The wrong kind of guy. Drugs. But people are complicated, and one side fuels the other. Maybe her recklessness in choosing men fed into her thinking, ‘I’ll say what I want to say.’ ”

The film also touches, obliquely, on Holiday’s sexual relationship with actress Tallulah Bankhead, adding another dimension to Holiday’s impact. “She symbolizes freedom,” says Day. “She symbolizes equality. She represents not just civil rights, not just the black community, but the LGBTQ community. She represents almost every marginalized group of people. She was the original ‘f*ck the police.’”

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But the film largely focuses on the harassment Holiday endured at the hands of the FBI, which saw “Strange Fruit” as incendiary. To take the singer down, the agency decided to zero in on her heroin addiction, and assigned a black agent named Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes, known for his work in Moonlight and Bird Box) to track and arrest Holiday. According to the movie, the two eventually became lovers.

“She symbolizes freedom. She symbolizes equality. She represents almost every marginalized group of people. She was the original ‘f*ck the police.’ ”—Andra Day

“They were trying to eradicate her legacy,” says Day. “She was one of the first people to say out loud and really understand that these drugs were dropped in our community during the first war on drugs, in the Thirties and Forties. But she was way too famous, so [the government was] trying to get rid of her.”

Even as she was dogged by personal issues and career setbacks, however, Holiday kept singing “Strange Fruit” until her death in a hospital room — with police still looking in on her and taking her mug shot before she passed. “She’s often painted as a poor black woman who did drugs, but that’s the picture the powers that be want us to believe,” says Parks, who was approached by film producers to pen the script. “She was a really strong woman who would not be denied. Our Billie is not a victim. Standing up to injustice and power comes on really strong in our film.” Adds Daniels, “She was the Rihanna-meets-Cardi B of that generation. She didn’t give a f*ck. And she did what she wanted to do right up to the end.”

Daniels, who has explored black lives on TV (Empire) and in film (Precious, The Butler), has vivid memories of seeing Lady Sings the Blues when he was a teenager in Philadelphia in the 1970s. “I had never seen a black couple in love before onscreen, and I had never seen beautiful black people like Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams,” he says. “They were like relatives being celebrated on the big screen and speaking in a dialect that I completely understood, in an environment that I completely understood, with drugs and fashion.”

Decades later, the director was immediately intrigued when he was sent Parks’ script, which was partly inspired by Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari’s 2015 book about the war on drugs (which touches on Holiday’s story and the feds’ role in her life). “It just took me by storm,” Daniels says, “once I understood the story and that the government took her down because of that song. I thought it was an important story to tell.”


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Worried about offending Motown head Berry Gordy, who co-produced Lady Sings the Blues, Daniels reached out for permission. (Gordy, says Daniels, told him it was fine “as long as you do it right.”) But other obstacles remained, especially involving funding for his project. “You have some faith in the studios, especially after Empire,” he says. “I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m not going to get this movie financed.’ But not a studio felt it was deserving of the money that was needed. It’s just another form of racism and bigotry in Hollywood. You can’t talk about it, because you want to work, but at this point I don’t care anymore.”

Daniels eventually secured independent funding by way of New Slate Ventures, a hedge-fund-backed company with an eye on racially diverse projects; the company’s first film was Radha Blank’s autobiographical The Forty-Year-Old Version. Going with outside financing rather than via a Hollywood studio allowed Daniels to ignore advice to cast a boldface name as Holiday. Daniels wanted someone who could sing Holiday’s songs, but when he was first approached about Day — who hadn’t acted since her days in high school theater in California — Daniels admits he was wary. “I didn’t really want to meet with her because so many people told me to meet with her,” he admits, “and I don’t like being told, ‘This is the girl for you.’”

For her part, Day had concerns about her own ability when the two finally met. “I was like, ‘Why are we having this meeting right now?’ ” she says. “I swear, it was like him and I sitting in a meeting, both of us believing that I could not do this. I was like, ‘Are we sure this is a good idea?’ ” (Day also recalls, with a laugh, the time her high school teacher told her she should listen to Holiday, whom Day had never heard of: “I said, ‘I don’t know who that dude is.’ ”)

But during that get-together, Daniels and Day wound up bonding over what the actor calls “insecurities and self-sabotaging.” Both also related to Holiday in different ways. The filmmaker, who grappled with a drug problem for several decades, related to Holiday’s addiction struggles and initially saw the movie as focusing largely on that issue. Her wrenching rendition of “Autumn in New York” also reminds him of a partner who died of AIDS. And Day connected with the abuse Holiday took as part of relationships with husbands and lovers. Although Holiday was often physically violated, Day says she herself was not, “to the degree that she was, but in other ways.”

To ensure he had made the right choice, Daniels sent Day to an acting coach, the same person who had helped Mary J. Blige prepare for her role in Mudbound, the 2017 racial-tensions film set in the South. Daniels then saw one of Day’s rehearsal tapes. “It was jaw-dropping,” he says. “She had tapped into something, and I knew it was God speaking, and I couldn’t deny that anymore.”

To prepare for the role, Day lost 39 pounds and began drinking and smoking, despite normally not doing either, and she had to learn to evoke the sultry murmur of Holiday’s voice — a challenge in itself, given how little footage exists of her either singing or talking. “There are a few audio clips of her live performances, just like interviewing or sh*t-talking with her band,” Day says. “But you get a real vibe and a real sense of her, which is a very experienced woman, but also childlike in a way.” Still, Day says she was plagued with doubt during the filming of the movie. “ ‘Intimidating’ is not the appropriate word — ‘fear of God’ is appropriate,” she says. “It was the scariest sh*t I’ve ever done in my life. Every day I just woke up being like, ‘Today’s the day I’m going to suck and they’re going to fire me.’ ”

Lady Sings the Blues Again: The Story Behind 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' (1)

The United States vs. Billie Holiday may bring the late singer back into the 21st-century public eye, but it’s also part of a larger revival over the past few years. In light of Black Lives Matter and Congress’ recent failed attempt to pass the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act (which would make lynching a federal crime), “Strange Fruit,” as Daniels saw for himself, has made a comeback: The song has recently been sampled by rapper Rapsody, covered by R&B veteran Bettye LaVette, and praised anew by Bruce Springsteen. “Unfortunately, ‘Strange Fruit’ is still relevant, and people are beginning to understand that it was our very first protest song,” says Day “She was a true civil rights hero.”

Meanwhile, Holiday’s vintage recording “You’re My Thrill” was featured in an episode of HBO’s Watchmen,and she was the subject of a recent documentary (Billie) and an indie-rock tribute album (M. Ward’s Think of Spring). Holiday’s 1958 Lady in Satin ranked Number 317 last year on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums list. “Her story is similar to Robert Johnson’s,” says Ward. “The talent and emotion are the hooks that draw you in, and once you get into the mystery of their lives, you’re in it for the long haul.”

In 2012, the family of Holiday’s last husband, which was running her estate, sold the estate rights to Concord Music for an undisclosed sum. The renewed interest in Holiday is also prompting Concord to further explore opportunities to raise Holiday’s profile. The estate — which was never contacted about Daniels’ film, although it did lend its support to director James Erskine’s documentary Billie, released last December — is exploring a possible stage musical based on her life. “She touches on everything America is talking about now: systemic racism, abuse, LGBTQ rights, police brutality,” says Concord executive Michele Smith. “She is the American story. Holiday wasn’t perfect, but she did the best she could.” Still, Smith says the company is being watchful of licensing: a request to use Holiday’s name and likeness on whiskey tumbler glasses, for instance, was denied in light of the late singer’s alcoholism. “She died from an addiction,” says Smith, “so we’re careful about what’s right for her and her legacy.”

Daniels says he’s disappointed that The United States vs. Billie Holiday will premiere on Hulu and not in theaters as first intended (by way of Paramount), another victim of Covid-19’s impact on the film business. “They kept saying, ‘We’re going to go full ahead,’ ” he says, “and I’m thinking to myself, ‘How is this going to happen? How are they going to release it in February?’ I was nervous as hell.” Daniels accepts the straight-to-streaming decision, but adds, “I’m sad, because this was shot on film, and to watch it on the big screen is how it was meant to be looked at. So I’m sort of bummed about that.”

But the director says he’s at peace with the project in other ways. On the last day of shooting, he had a dream about Holiday in which she was emerging from a car and approached him. “I said, ‘I’m doing a movie about you — I hope you like it,’ ” he says. “And she said, ‘Are you gonna do me right?’ And I said, ‘I think so.’ In my heart, I know I did.”

Lady Sings the Blues Again: The Story Behind 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' (2024)
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