Looking for something enlightening and enticing to watch this Black History month? Look no further than Lee Daniels’ latest biopic: The United States vs Billie Holiday – a film that uncovers Lady Day’s heroism as she fought prosecution from the FBI while using her voice as her weapon.
A little over seven years after the release of The Butler, Lee Daniels knew “there was no question” when it came to getting back in the director’s chair for The United States vs Billie Holiday.
“When we found out through Suzan-Lori Parks’ brilliant script that [Holiday] was singing “Strange Fruit” and was hounded by the government I telephoned my agent and I said, ‘I have to do this,” Daniels said.
While most are familiar with the legendary jazz singer, known for her smooth honey-like voice and hits such as “My Man”, many may not be familiar with the origin behind “Strange Fruit” – her most controversial song to date, and the repercussions that proceeded performing it.
Already a fan of the iconic songstress (so much so that she even adopted the second part of her stage name, ‘Lady Day’); singer and first-time actress, Andra Day seamlessly transformed into Holiday. In preparation for the role, Day told Variety she lost 39 pounds and dabbled in smoking and drinking to fully engulf Holiday.
According to Day, the experience in portraying her role also involved dipping into “many facets”, beyond the physical.
“I had to touch on familial trauma… and then another part of it was social injustice being a black woman in America – and fear”, Day said taking a beat. “Fear was a huge part of it…. It was using the fear to actually propel me into this character and be able to realize the emotions I needed for each scene.”
That combination of fear and personal experience allowed Day to effortlessly become Billie Holiday within each scene, a skill not lost on her co-star and on-screen romance, Agent Jimmy Fletcher, played by Moonlight star, Trevante Rhodes.
“Andra is a very, very hard worker… someone who walks in purpose,” Rhodes says with a nod before continuing; “to be able to work with someone like that…. and Lee Daniels – it was a real blessing.”
Equally impressed with Day’s portrayal was castmate, Evan Ross. “I feel blessed to even have been apart [of the film],” Ross says with a smile. While new to this rendition of Holiday’s tale, Ross is no stranger to the songstress’ musicality as he recalled the 1972 film, Lady Sings The Blues – the biopic in which his iconic mother, Diana Ross portrayed Holiday.
“I was lucky to grow up being able to know of Billie Holiday at a young age so I got the opportunity to know the music and know it through my mother; it does feel very close to home – for whatever reason, it was all meant to be,” Ross says.
Those not entirely familiar with Holiday’s backstory, including her fight to expose the horrific lynchings of black people taking place in the south by standing up to the FBI and performing “Strange Fruit”, can get a glimpse inside a piece of her life that seemed buried in history.
I asked Tyler James Williams, who took on the role of Lester “Prez” Young what parts of himself he found to have changed after shooting The United States vs. Billie Holiday, to which he countered, “I think its even easier to ask what parts of her story hasn’t.”
Williams recently took to his Instagram, admitting before making the film, he “wasn’t fully aware of her fight as an icon” but found himself learning something that gave the “greater context of her heroism” throughout its production.
“There was a fearlessness to Billie to tell [her] story. It’s caused me to go deeper into my work and be more fearless in the way I do what I do because if she can do that in the ’40s and in the ’50s and were in 2021, we have to continue that conversation, Williams says before taking a beat. “We can’t slow that momentum down.”
For Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Roslyn), a self-proclaimed “history buff”, the impact of Holidays’ story and its re-telling within the film is “crucial” to both black culture, and history itself.
“As a person of color and as a female I wanna’ tell real authentic stories, and I want to show the different shades of brown the different personalities [and] quirks that black women can have,” Randolph says. “When we get opportunities to tell stories of people you may know, you may not know, within our culture, I think important….I do believe when you know when you come from, it makes a big difference – you can walk a little bit taller knowing that your ancestors wore crowns.”
Uncover this incredible side of Billie Holiday’s story premiering on Hulu on February 26th!