Billie Holiday and the art she created is forever relevant.
While the anticipated film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday has gone through some distribution challenges perhaps the film ultimately debuting on a streaming platform at this time is divine order as we experience a global pandemic, a racially-charged uprising, political warfare and more.
Directed by Academy Award nominee Lee Daniels and written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (based on the chapter “The Black Hand” on Billie Holiday in Johann Mari’s 2015 bestselling book, Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs), The United States vs. Billie Holiday stars Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Miss Lawrence, Tyler James Williams, Evan Ross and Tone Bell.
Here’s an overview of the upcoming film, from a press release sent to The Root:
From today’s lens, it is hard for some to imagine the United States government tormenting anyone for just singing a song. Certainly not ‘Strange Fruit,’ her protest song against lynching. What crime could the United States government possibly find in amplifying the senseless killing of Black people, Black men specifically, for nothing more than the color of their skin? Why was any entity of the federal government outraged over a now classic American protest song with the lyric “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees?” The harsh truth is Jim Crow wasn’t just in the South. Racism was all over the nation and few knew that as well as Billie Holiday.
As a woman born Black and poor with extremely limited options in Jim Crow America, survival, in and of itself, was a win. Becoming the iconic Lady Day, beloved by both Black and white Americans for her talent, did not shield her. No amount of fame could save her from the punishment reserved for her refusal to stop singing ‘Strange Fruit.’ Unable to outrun her demons, she had turned to drugs early to numb the pain of her rough childhood, her unfortunate choice in men and just the price of living Black and female in America. And the government, her government, used her weakness, her drug addiction, against her. Fighting unfairly, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger, who founded this country’s infamous “War on Drugs,” hired Jimmy Fletcher, a Black man, to infiltrate her jazz circles and take her down. But their plan hit a major snag when Jimmy did the unthinkable and fell in love with her. It wasn’t enough to save her from a horrific death chained to a hospital bed surrounded by federal agents. Did the government kill Lady Day? The United States vs. Billie Holiday dares to answer that question.
As part of an intentional request from Daniels (who says finally being able to debut the trailer feels like he “gave birth”), members of Black media were invited to check out the first-look at the trailer as well as sit in for a conversation with Daniels, Rhodes and Day, hosted by Entertainment Tonight’s Nischelle Turner.
In addition to taking on the responsibility of singing Holiday’s iconic songs, Day is diving in head-first into acting with such a major role. The singer credits Daniels’ support to lean into a role that naturally comes with a lot of pressure.
“When he was telling me about the story, he [told me that he] loves Lady Sings the Blues,” she recalled about their first meeting. “We both share that. But, he was letting me know [this] wasn’t Lady Sings the Blues. We weren’t remaking Lady Sings the Blues, which was a relief for me because I was like, Diana [Ross], first of all, killed that role...it was amazing. So, I don’t want to approach it again. As a fan of Billie Holiday, to know that the story would be talking about the FBI, the war on drugs, Harry Anslinger...that, to me, was really exciting because it was almost like vindicating her legacy.”
As Daniels noted, “biopic” isn’t the right term to use for this film.
“It’s a moment in time,” the director said. “It’s not a straight-on biopic at all. But, it happened. Everything happened. It’s all documented. So, it’s not like it didn’t happen. It’s a musical, it’s just my storytelling. It’s what happens and we all get together and tell a story, a Black story.”
“I feel really, really blessed that we have the opportunity to tell the story honestly with the people that we have to tell the story with, because Lee is beautiful and Andra is beautiful. It’s who they are as people and it’s who Billie was as a person that really made me want to be a part of it,” Rhodes said.
“I’ll sing what the fuck I want,” Day’s Billie utters in the trailer, as Rhodes’ Jimmy intimates that the reason why the country is threatened by Billie is that she’s “strong, beautiful and Black.” Say it again!
The United States vs. Billie Holiday releases Feb. 26 on Hulu.