Andra Day is accustomed to stepping onto the stage as herself. But this weekend, she transforms on the silver screen playing famed jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Directed by Lee Daniels, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (streaming on Hulu Friday) centers on the battle over Holiday performing the song “Strange Fruit” in the last 12 years of her life, with Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) going after the singer using the power of the government – and using a plant named Jimmy Fletcher (“Moonlight” star Trevante Rhodes) to do so.
“I was excited as a fan of Billie Holiday’s to be able to vindicate her legacy,” Day tells USA TODAY via Zoom about her first major acting role. The Grammy-nominated singer calls Holiday “the early godmother of the civil rights movement,” adding that “in part, her singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in defiance of the government (is what) reinvigorated the movement.”
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Day didn’t want to remake the 1972 biographical drama “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring Diana Ross – neither did Daniels. The new film uses Johann Hari’s “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” as source material to develop the previously untold story of the government weaponizing the “War on Drugs” to stop Holiday from singing “Strange Fruit.”
“I really wanted to bring light to the government chasing her down,” Daniels says. “I can’t imagine the government trying to stop this woman from singing a song because they knew it would cause an uproar. And I can’t imagine this woman just saying ‘No, I’m not going to not sing this song. This song is too important.’ ”
But as “Billie Holiday” shows, that’s what happened. Anslinger’s narcotics bureau aggressively hunted Holiday for years, following her on tour, yanking her off the stage when she tried singing “Strange Fruit,” and jailing her for drug use while going easy on white stars of that era also struggling with addiction.
Day’s Holiday goes beyond singing the blues – she’s living in them, experiencing the highs and lows of stardom, abuse and addiction, wrapped up in the existence of a Black woman in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
Known for songs like “All of Me,” “Blue Moon” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” Holiday started singing as a teen in nightclubs, becoming successful as a jazz singer while struggling with heroin addiction and a slew of problematic relationships borne out of sexual abuse she endured as a child.
“This woman had so much trauma and pain in her life, and the fact that she was even able to laugh – ” Day says, running through a litany of life experiences that contributed to Holiday’s addiction. She says she met with addicts and recovering addicts to understand the dependence on drugs: “I think most people don’t understand that it’s a mental illness.”
Day says “having to normalize” the abuse Holiday endured “was a really crazy part because when she gets hit in the face or punched or knocked out by her husband, she’s not going ‘Oh my God, he did a terrible thing to me.’ It’s very, very normal for her, she’s used to men being abusive since she was a child.”
“Billie Holiday” is the latest in a slate of movies examining the U.S. government’s insidious involvement in dismantling prominent Black figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. (“MLK/FBI”) and Fred Hampton (“Judas and the Black Messiah”), though it’s a rare project with a Black woman at the forefront.
The film also reveals the complicated romance between Holiday and Fletcher, a federal agent tasked with bringing down the singer but who ultimately falls into an ill-fated love affair with her.
“I didn’t know the depths of which the FBI tried to persecute her and her ability to stay strong and stay resilient” under that kind of pressure, Rhodes says. “There’s so much power in that. We hear these stories about our Black icons, but it’s just always beautiful to see stories presented of them.”
Though “Strange Fruit” was written as a poem by Russian Jewish Bronx, New York, native Abel Meeropol, the controversial song about lynching became synonymous with Holiday and was one of her most popular songs. In a powerful scene from the film, Day finally performs the (still achingly poignant) song after witnessing a lynching.
Daniels says “Strange Fruit” “means a lot to me because I lived my entire life not knowing what the song meant, not really understanding the importance of the song.”
Though the role marks Day’s first acting gig, belting out powerful vocals is old hat for the singer, best known for her powerful song “Rise Up.” The ever-evolving anthem, which Day performed during the inauguration parade for President Joe Biden, has become a rallying cry for today’s activists.
“Things have been so divisive for such a long time,” she says. “Politically, I believe that we are in a better place, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
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