It goes without saying that when performer lands the role of a cultural icon, there is a certain amount of pressure. Oscar-nominated actress Andra Day immediately felt it, when she found out she was going to play the legendary Billie Holiday in Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday. “It was all fear for sure,” Day said, laughing.
During Deadline’s Contenders Film: The Nominees virtual awards-season panel for the Hulu film, Day talked about how she turned down the role because she had never acted before. However, when she met Daniels, whom she said was also skeptical, it was “love at first sight.”
Holiday is widely known for her music, but it was “Strange Fruit,” her protest song against lynching, that made her an icon for activism. In The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Daniels spotlights the often untold story of how the U.S. government tormented Holiday for performing a song that amplified the senseless killing of Black people. Considering the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the story is unfortunately relevant in this moment in history.
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Luckily, stepping into the shoes of Lady Day worked; Day received critical acclaim for the performance and, of course, a Best Actress Oscar nomination. It also helped Day bolster her platform as an artist for the greater good.
“She definitely made me braver,” said Day, who added that Holiday was just trying to live her life freely as a queer Black woman, but the government wasn’t having it.
“It just reminds me that we have to speak truth – and not just Billie Holiday’s truth,” said Day. “That’s one story of tons of stories that the narrative has been changed, suppressed and altered.”
She continued, “You are not supposed to know the depth of the struggles, contributions and triumphs of marginalized people…because it unifies us. At the end of the day, that’s not the goal of white supremacy. What I learned from this was to do what she did: to give voice — even if it is to your own detriment — to people whose voices are being suppressed.”
Check out the panel conversation above.
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