Jazz singer Billie Holiday was unequivocally a Civil Rights icon, but history doesn’t remember her as such.
As the first person to perform “Strange Fruit” on stage, Holiday, a Black woman, bravely sang about the lynching of Black people in America. The song was first recorded in 1939, in the midst of the Jim Crow era when racial terrorism was rampant. The song’s lyrics said it all:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
“Strange Fruit” was a protest song, before the musical genre had a name. It reminded Holiday of her father, who died after being denied treatment in a hospital for white people. The legendary musician put her life and career on the line by singing “Strange Fruit” which was originally a poem first written by Abel Meeropol, and she soon became a target of the FBI.
Billie Holiday was known to battle with a heroin addiction, which caused her to be tracked and vilified by the feds, leading to her untimely death. But during the same era, white actors in Hollywood, like Judy Garland, openly battled with addiction but did not receive the same treatment. No doubt, racial bias has impacted the war on drugs, even to this day.
Director Lee Daniels brings Holiday’s story to life in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. In it, Holiday is powerfully portrayed by singer-songwriter Andra Day. The cast also includes Trevante Rhodes who plays Jimmy Fletcher, the Black FBI agent who tracked Holiday; Tyler James Williams as jazz musician Lester Young; Miss Lawrence who portrays Miss Freddy; Da’Vine Joy Randolph who is Roslyn; and Evan Ross as FBI agent Williams.
“It wasn’t about anything other than bringing Billie Holliday down,” said Trevante Rhodes, adding, “It was the war on Black people.”
The United States vs. Billie Holiday debuts on Hulu on Feb. 26.