Story at a glance
- "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday" is available for streaming exclusively on Hulu starting Feb. 26.
- The film is directed by Academy Award nominee Lee Daniels and stars Grammy-nominated artist Andra Day as legendary singer Billie Holiday.
- Based on a screenplay, the film reveals how racism and the war on drugs targeted the legendary singer.
"Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root," sang Billie Holiday in an iconic protest against lynching during the Jim Crow era.
If the lyrics sound familiar, but not the artist, it's by design, suggests a new biographical account of the Grammy-winning singer arrested for possession of narcotics on her deathbed at 44.
“Whether you are new to the story and legacy of Billie Holiday or know every note she ever sang, I do hope our celebration of this complex woman does justice to a great musical legend and civil rights activist whose artistry resonates as well today, as it did 80 years ago. Hulu releasing this film and giving it a platform to be seen nationwide is a blessing, because as recent events reveal, our country has much work to do in fulfilling its promise of a more perfect union,” said director Lee Daniels, an Academy Award nominee known for "Precious" and "The Butler," in a release.
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The screenplay, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, is based on a single chapter from Johann hari's bestseller "Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs." Titled "The Black Hand," the story chronicles the life and death of the jazz singer nicknamed “Lady Day.”
“One night, in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage in New York City and sang a song that was unlike anything anyone had heard before,” Hari wrote. “‘Strange Fruit’ was a musical lament against lynching. It imagined black bodies hanging from trees as a dark fruit native to the South. Here was a black woman, before a mixed audience, grieving for the racist murders in the United States. Immediately after, Billie Holiday received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.”
Holiday's life, her rise and fall in the music industry, legal troubles and drug addiction, have been chronicled before in film and theatre, played by Diana Ross and Audra McDonald. But the film focuses on the consequences of racism and the war on drugs — spearheaded by Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics who once reportedly testified in Congress that “[c]oloreds with big lips lure white women with jazz and marijuana” — on her legacy.
“To Harry Anslinger, Billie Holiday was like the symbol of everything that America had to be afraid of,” Hari told WNYC. “She had a heroin addiction because she’d been chronically raped as a child and she was trying to deal with the grief and the pain of that. And also, she was resisting white supremacy. And when she insisted on continuing on her right as an American citizen to sing 'Strange Fruit,’ Anslinger resolves to destroy her.”
The United States is finally beginning to acknowledge the racist consequences of the war on drugs, and Daniels told the New York Post he hopes the film helps push the conversation forward, endorsing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Still, in both Till's case and Holiday's, justice comes too late.
“It was called The United States of America versus Billie Holiday — and that’s just the way it felt,” Holiday wrote in her autobiography.
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