In Hulu’s The United State vs. Billie Holiday, Day transforms into the iconic jazz singer as she battles against the federal government to perform her controversial, yet moving number “Strange Fruit.” Upon receiving the best lead actress nom, Day told Deadline that her love for the blues singer brought the honor to another level.
“I always loved this woman, she really helped me own who I am as an artist. She helped me to say ‘OK, my voice is worthy.’ God has just used her and her legacy very powerfully in my life and to know,” she said. “It was one of the things that would kill me when people would say [she] ‘wasted life.’ This couldn’t be further from the truth – she’s a hero.”
Day is the second singer-actress to receive Oscar love for her portrayal of the iconic singer, following Diana Ross for her 1972 depiction in Lady Sings the Blues. The actress, who said she initially was scared to follow Ross’ “untouchable” portrayal, said that her role wasn’t about filling the shoes of the remarkable Black women who came before her, but instead about honoring them.
While many see Holiday as the “godmother of the civil rights movement,” who help set the path for today’s music activists, Day explained that the singer never set out to be a leader or create “the first protest song.”
“She was just an activist by nature by doing what was right, what was fair,” she explained.
Centering Holiday’s fight against the FBI is just one example of shifting the narrative away from the “lens of the white patriarchy,” the actress said. Among the nominated other titles highlighting Black stories that have too often gone untold include Judas and the Black Messiah and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Day said it’s these kinds of stories that urge viewers to question what other histories have stayed untold.
“People are also realizing that their history was also kept from them,” she said. “We never knew the truth about Billie Holiday fighting against racial terror, fighting against segregation. We didn’t know this because we weren’t supposed to know. So now the question is … what else is kept from us? When you start to ask that question, it’s a f*cking lot.”