The life of Civil Rights movement leader Billie Holiday is coming to HULU on February 26, 2021. Starring Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday will shed light on the jazz and swing music singer, who, despite her legal troubles, drug abuse, and deteriorated reputation, became one of the first equal rights activists thanks to her 1939 song “Strange Fruit.”
“When you think of Civil Rights leaders, you think of men,” film director Lee Daniels says, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “When you think of Billie Holiday, you think of this brilliant tortured jazz singer that happened to have been a drug addict. I didn’t know that she kicked off the Civil Rights movement. Before there was a Civil Rights movement, there was Billie Holiday and ‘Strange Fruit.’ The government saw that song as a threat, and she was a target. That’s history, and they keep it from us.”
“Strange Fruit” is a protest song associated with “the beginning of the civil rights movement” and “a declaration of war” for all the torture and lynching Black Americans suffered predominantly in the South during the 20th century. Although Time magazine named the song “Best Song of the Century,” and the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry, Holiday became a person of interest for the FBI. The agency tried to suppress her performance to avoid uprisings from the African American community.
How Andra Day became Billie Holiday
The California native singer wasn’t Daniel’s first choice; however, she was highly recommended by the director’s manager and agents. “I don’t like being pressured into anything,” he says. Still, he met with the 36-year-old star and found out she “was enchanting, and she did embody the spirit of Billie.”
Although Day didn’t have acting experience, she was natural. “I sent her to an acting coach because she had not acted before,” Daniels revealed. “And the acting coach, on the fly, turned her iPhone on and showed me her prepping and getting into character. Just from that 30 seconds of video footage, I saw Billie Holiday without question. The game was up. There was no acting. There was just being.”
Besides Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday cast includes Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Natasha Lyonne, Da‘Vine Joy Randolph, Dana Gourrier, Erik LaRay Harvey, and Evan Ross, son of the legendary Supremes lead singer Diana Ross. The 76-year old icon launched her acting career as the lead actress of Lady Sings the Blues, a 1972 biographical drama film about Billie Holiday.
“At 13 years old, I saw [Lady Sings the Blues] in Philadelphia, and I saw two black people in love, Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams,” says Daniels. “They were beautiful, stunning. That fashion was fabulous. It was everything that I grew up about as an inner-city kid in Philly, except it was in Harlem, and it just reeked of my life. I had never seen anything like it ever. That was the reason why I ended up directing, which is weird because I ended up directing her story, but it wasn‘t a story. It was a lie. It was make-believe.”
According to the 61-year-old film director, he “really wanted to show black love that we don’t see very often—it’s flawed and messy, yet, it’s beautiful.” Therefore, he contacted Lady Sings the Blues’ producer, Berry Gordy, to ask permission. “I don’t think I would have done the movie if he said, don’t do it,” Daniels says.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is scheduled to be released on February 26, 2021, by Hulu. Watch the official trailer below.