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Everything You Need to Know About The Billie Holiday Movie

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Considered to be one of the greatest jazz vocalists of the ’30s and into the late ’50s, “Lady Day” captivated sold-out theaters with her raspy renditions of “All of Me” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” It was the track titled, “Strange Fruit,” however, that haunted the country during a time of severe racial tension following Congress’ decision to reject a bill criminalizing the lynching of Black Americans.

The Hulu Original, Golden Globe®Award-winning film The United States vs. Billie Holiday depicts the history of one woman’s civil rights fight, with only her voice as her weapon. It explores the impact of Holiday’s song on the existing racial tensions in America and how her decision to continue singing it for audiences left her as a target for the FBI.

Who is Billie Holiday?

Holiday was born in 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. She rose to prominence during the 1930s at the age of eighteen, after being discovered by famous record producer, John Hammond, while performing at a Harlem jazz club.

The epitome of elegance and soul when performing, Holiday’s image began to stake claim within the jazz scene and establish her as a respected artist. Her unique vocals, skillful lyrics, and collaborations with notable musicians made her a star. But it was her music’s ties to the civil rights movement that solidified her role as a cultural icon and resulted in societal and governmental tensions.

What is the Story Behind Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit?

“Strange Fruit” is regarded as one of the most controversial yet deeply influential songs performed by Holiday throughout her entire career. The song was inspired by a poem of the same name, which graphically depicted the lynchings of Black Americans. Holiday’s version backs the graphic lyrics with a haunting and unforgettable tune, eventually becoming the highlight of her concerts and celebrated as one of the first songs of the civil rights movement.

As depicted in Daniels’ The United States vs Billie Holiday, it wasn’t long before Holiday’s persistence in singing “Strange Fruit” landed her in the crossfires with FBI Agent Harry Anslinger, who attempted to silence her, and at the center of the war on drugs. Holiday, a known addict, became a target of the FBI’s narcotics sting operation as a means to prevent her from continuing to spread the message of “Strange Fruit.” Holiday’s fight with the United States government and brave attempts to maintain civil rights for African Americans are at the forefront of her legacy.

Behind the Scenes of The Billie Holiday Movie

A Hulu Original film, The United States vs Billie Holiday is directed and produced by Lee Daniels and written by Suzan-Lori Parks (2002 Pulitzer Prize Winner). The movie stars Andra Day as Billie Holiday and follows the darker side of the jazz singer’s life as a civil rights pioneer.

Check out a Hulu-exclusive interview with Daniels and Day, moderated by Variety, to get a behind the scenes look at The United States vs Billie Holiday:

Who is Lee Daniels?

Lee Daniels is an Academy Award® nominated filmmaker and television creator, who is known for his works that call attention to racial tensions in America. In 2012, he created Lee Daniels’ The Butler, starring renowned actor, Forest Whittaker, offering a view into the life of a Black butler who served the White House through several presidencies. Daniels is also known for his piece Precious, which was nominated for six Academy Awards®, including “Best Motion Picture.” It secured wins in the “Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role” and “Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay” categories.

Daniels was the first African American to receive a nomination for “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film” through the Director’s Guild of America. Precious, for which he received this nomination, also secured him eight NAACP Image Award nominations and six wins.

Director Lee Daniels on The United States vs. Billie Holiday film set

In a recent interview with Variety, Daniels explains why he chose to make a movie that centered on Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit”:

I didn’t really understand what [Billie Holiday] stood for until I got [Suzan-Lori Park’s] script. I didn’t know that everything that I [heard] as a teenager that had lived in me, and [Lady Sings The Blues] is the reason that I’m a filmmaker today, so everything that I thought that I knew about [Holiday] was incorrect. She was much more complicated and she really was as Andra said, the mother of the civil rights movement.

So “Strange Fruit” was really important for her to sing. She would do anything to sing that song, go up against the government … another reason why I really wanted to do this and to honor her as an artist that struggles with addiction … it wasn’t just about addiction … you can be an addict and you can still be an incredible figure and do incredible work in the civil rights movement as she did…When you think of civil rights leaders you think of Martin Luther King, you think of Malcolm X, you think of Gandhi. You don’t think of her.

Who is Andra Day?

Woman standing in front of a mic singing on stage

Andra Day is an American musician whose vocals are inspired by jazz, gospel, and blues sounds. Her debut album released in 2015, noted for the single “Rise Up,” which received Grammy nominations for “Best R&B Album” and “Best R&B Performance.”

In her breakout role as Billie Holiday, Day took home the Golden Globe® award for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama.” In addition, she and singer-songwriter Raphael Saadiq were nominated for “Best Original Song – Motion Picture” for the song Tigress & Tweed.

In an interview with Variety, Day comments on her transition from singing “Strange Fruit” as herself three years ago, to performing it as Billie Holiday in the BioPic:

When you’re playing a character that you know is going to die, there is a sense of urgency… that permeates every single thing you do. Even when I wasn’t on camera…there’s a real sense of needing to experience them and to impart something…there was such a sense of urgency singing [Strange Fruit] and just a real deep need for people to hear the lyrics and to understand.

Notable Quotes From The United States vs Billie Holiday

On the Success of Billie Holiday

You hate her. Despite all the shit in her life, she made something of herself and you can’t take it. Because she is strong, beautiful, and black.

(Jimmy Fletcher to Harry Aslinger)

On Society’s Perception of Blackness

What’s it like to be a colored woman? Would you ask Doris Day a Question like that?

(Billie Holiday, in an interview with Reginald Lord Devine)

On Strange Fruit

You think I’m gonna stop singing that song? Your grandkids will be singing Strange Fruit.

(Billie Holiday to Harry Aslinger)

Why don’t you ever sing Strange Fruit?…Strange Fruit…It’s a song about important things, ya know? Things that are going on in the country. I don’t think people know I care about those things. Most of my other songs are about love.

(Billie Holiday to Jimmy Fletcher)

You ever see a lynching? It’s about human rights. The government forgets that sometimes. They just want me to shut up and sing ‘All of Me.’

(Billie Holiday, in an interview with Reginald Lord Devine).

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