“When I thought of Billie Holiday, I just thought of her as a jazz singer, maybe a troubled artist, you hear about drugs, a little bit of trouble with the law,” says Lee Daniels, director of the upcoming biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday. With all that Holiday accomplished during her storied career, rarely highlighted is her work in the civil rights movement of the 1930s and ’40s, which was why Daniels was inspired to tackle this project.
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, the pic is set in 1940s New York City at a time when the federal government targeted Holiday for her drug use, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial ballad “Strange Fruit.”
“Through this story, we learn about her singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ which was about lynching Black people, and that the government didn’t want her singing ‘Strange Fruit.’ They didn’t want the story to be told,” Daniels says during the Hulu film’s panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film awards-season event.
Lee also points to the current discussions over lynching and the government’s inability to pass a law making the heinous act a federal hate crime. “I had to tell the story,” he says of the film, which is being released on Hulu on February 26.
Singer Andra Day illuminates the screen as the iconic Holiday in her first major acting role. “I was already a big Billie Holiday fan so for me, it was a joy,” she says on the panel alongside Lee and costume designer Paolo Neiddu. She also shared her process of getting into character, which required “a lot of research.” In fact, the actress was so committed to the role, she even cut off all her hair and took up smoking. “Everything was worth it,” she says.
While the film takes place in the early 20th century, Daniels emphasizes that its themes of racial injustice, police brutality and censorship are relevant today. “This movie is more of a call to arms,” he says. “I’m not a politician. I’m not an activist. I’m a filmmaker. I’m a storyteller. I can only do my duty by telling stories that are in the ether.”
He adds: “I mean, my spirit told me to do this film, but I had no idea how right now is the time for it, and how tomorrow is the time for it, and how next year is going to be the time for it, and how, when my kids get older, it’s going to be the time for it.”
Check out the panel video above.
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