THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY


February 08, 2021
THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY 
FEBRUARY 26, 2021 - HULU
billie.PNG (304 KB)
  From today’s lens, it is hard for some to imagine the United States governmenttormenting anyone for just singing a song. Certainly not ‘Strange Fruit,’ Billie Holiday’s greatprotest song against lynching. What crime could the United States government possibly find inamplifying the senseless killing of Black people, Black men specifically, for nothing more thanthe color of their skin? Why would any entity of the federal government be outraged over a nowclassic American protest song with the lyric “Black bodies swingin' in the Southernbreeze/Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees?”The harsh truth is Jim Crow wasn’t just in the South. Racism was all over the nation andfew knew that as well as Billie Holiday. As a woman born Black and poor with extremelylimited options in Jim Crow America, survival, in and of itself, was a win. Becoming the iconicLady Day, beloved by both Black and white Americans for her talent, did not shield her. Noamount of fame could save her from the punishment reserved for her refusal to stop singing“Strange Fruit.”Unable to outrun her demons, she turned to drugs early in her life to numb the pain of herrough childhood, her unfortunate choice in men and just the price of living Black and female inAmerica. And the government, her government, used her weakness, her drug addiction, againsther. Fighting unfairly, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger, who founded thiscountry’s infamous “War on Drugs,” hired Jimmy Fletcher, a Black man, to infiltrate her jazzcircles and take her down. But their plan hit a major snag when Jimmy did the unthinkable andfell in love with her. It wasn’t enough to save her from a horrific death chained to a hospital bedsurrounded by federal agents. Did the government kill Lady Day? The United States vs. BillieHoliday dares to uncover that truth.
  Directed by Academy Award nominee Lee Daniels, with a screenplay written by PulitzerPrize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the chapter “The Black Hand” on BillieHoliday in Johann Hari’s 2015 bestselling book, Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Daysof the War on Drugs,and introducing Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day in a mesmerizingand showstopping performance as Billie Holiday, Hulu presents The United States vs. BillieHoliday. Trevante Rhodes, from the Academy Award winning film Moonlight, stars as JimmyFletcher, with Tony Award nominee Da’Vine Joy Randolph from Ghost: The Musical andDolemite Is My Name, Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Natasha Lyonne from Orange Is theNew Black and Russian Doll, Mudbound’s Garrett Hedlund and Rob Morgan, as well as Star’sMiss Lawrence and Evan Ross, along with Everybody Hates Chris and Dear White People’sTyler James Williamsand Sylvie’s Love Tone Bell.
 Iconic jazz singer and drug addict” is how Billie Holiday is too often described. Herdeath in 1959 at just age 44, many believe, was due to her own self-destruction---drugs, alcoholand toxic men. In a word, she was tragic. Hero is nowhere in the picture. Neither is civil rightsleader. But Billie Holiday was indeed these things and more. Defying federal government’sorders to stop singing “Strange Fruit,” a song protesting the lynching of Black people, probablyled to her early death. Inspired by and based upon the chapter, “Black Hand,” from British writerJohann Hari’sbillie us 2.jpg (32 KB) revelatory 2015 New York Times bestseller, Chasing the Scream: The First andLast Days of the War on Drugs, The United States vs. Billie Holiday tells the story of a defiantHoliday who would not buckle to white supremacy.“When you think of civil rights leaders, you think of Rosa Parks, or you think of MartinLuther King, and, if you want to get a little edgy, you think of Malcolm X. But you really don'tthink of Billie Holiday,” says Academy Award nominee director/producer Lee Daniels. “Onethinks of her as a singer, a jazz singer, an addict.”J. Edgar Hoover was not the only government official with documented misuse of power.Harry J. Anslinger, who led the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, aprecursor to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), under five U.S. Presidents--Hoover,Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, abused his power as well. As the architect of “the war on drugs,” Anslinger, who targeted jazz musicians for marijuana use, bullied Billie Holidayto not sing “Strange Fruit” and used her drug and alcohol challenges as an excuse to go after her.Jailing a person for singing a song seems a bit extreme by today’s standards. But the2020s were not the 1930s. Social protest songs were far from the order of the day. In 1939, whenBillie Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit” protesting lynching, at New York City’s firstintegrated nightclub, Café Society, in front of a mostly white audience and later recorded it, Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” and Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Come Marching In”were the year’s biggest hits. That said, when Billie Holiday began singing “Strange Fruit,”popular music artists and entertainers were not outspoken in their music.Historical evidence of protests against lynching, which typically refer to the killing ofBlack people, most often men, by a mob of mostly white men, largely in the South, withoutpunishment, date back to the 1890s.
More than two decades prior to Holiday singing “StrangeFruit,” nearly 10,000 people gathered in New York City in 1917 for the NAACP-organized silentmarch against lynching, one of the first mass demonstrations of its kind protesting racialviolence. The following year, U.S. Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer, a Republican (as in the partyof Abraham Lincoln) from St. Louis introduced the billie 3.gif (27 KB)Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill making lynching afederal crime that was stopped by a filibuster. From 1934 to 1936, Senators Edward PrentissCostigan and Robert F. Wagner, Democrats from Colorado and New York, introduced theanti-lynching Costigan-Wagner Bill that was not passed. More than 200 times since 1918,antilynching bills have been introduced into Congress, and as recently as February 26, 2020when the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, passed the House of Representatives, by a vote of410–4. Unfortunately, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky held the bill up from passage in theSenate. Even today, in the 2020s, an anti-lynching bill has not passed.“Strange Fruit” began as a poem then titled “Bitter Fruit” in 1937 published by JewishAmerican Abel Meeropol as Lewis Allan in ​The New York Teacher​, a publication of theTeachers Union. Meeropol wrote it in response to a graphic photo by photographer LawrenceBeitler of the lynching of two young Black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, accused ofkilling a white man and his girlfriend, by a white mob who pulled them from the jail in Marion,Indiana. At some point, Meeropol, his wife Anne and Black American vocalist Laura Duncanreportedly began performing it as a song.
When Billie Holiday first heard the lyrics of Strange Fruit, it reminded her of her father,who died when he was turned away from a hospital because he was Black. So at 23, she beganfearlessly singing the song at Café Society. Fearing retaliation and censure in the South, herproducer John Hammond refused to record it and Columbia Records, to whom she wascontracted, refused to release it. They did allow her to record it for another label. After hearingHoliday sing “Strange Fruit” a cappella, Milt Gabler, who owned alternative jazz labelCommodore, produced Billie Holiday singing the song, releasing it in 1939 via a deal withVocalion Records. That recording went on to sell over a million copies, becoming Holiday’sbest-selling release. In 1944, she recorded it again for Commodore. The United States vs. BillieHoliday highlights how Billie Holiday refused to stop singing “Strange Fruit” and how she paidwith her life.“She was fighting against a lot at that time and she was essentially doing it by herself,”says Andra Day, who embodies the jazz icon. “This was the beginning of the civil rightsmovement. I actually look at her as the godmother of civil rights. She had to be unapologetic in alot of things that she did and especially when it came to fighting for her people.”Day, known for her socially conscious Grammy-nominated 2015 song, “Rise Up,” hadnever acted before. In her astounding first acting role, she dominates the screen. As a singer notan actor, Day never saw herself in this role. When she was suggested for the role, she herself wasdoubtful. When Daniels selected her, she found herself hoping he would change his mind. Herfear also fueled her transformation. For the role, Day went from 163 to 124 pounds. Sheswitched up her own speaking and singing voice. She also let go of her personal inhibitions.“I'm playing a character who smokes cigarettes and sleeps with multiple people, men,women, and does a lot of different types of drugs, and I don't cuss, I don't do drugs, I don't evenhave sex, I don't drink alcohol, I don't do any of that stuff,” she says. “I just started being a littlemore brazen, cussing a little more, letting my mouth take over. I actually really just had to diveback into my early 20s and allow myself to feel, to just say whatever was on my mind withoutfeeling guilty or without having to stop myself and think about it and say, ‘what's the right wayto do this,’ and just let it fly.”The reaction from her family and the people around her, Day shares, “was kind of jarringbecause they really weren't used to seeing me like that or hearing me like that or experiencing me like that, but, after a while, I think people started to fall in love with my Billie Holiday, like we'regoing to be sad when she goes away.”Because Daniels was initially concerned about Day’s lack of acting experience, he senther to Tasha Smith, an acting coach and friend.
Day’s initial transformation astounded him. “She wasn’t acting; she was being,” he shares. “She wasn’t even saying the words, but she droppedinto this place and you could feel the liquor on her breath, you could feel that she’d eaten potatochips, you saw the cigarette in her hand, her chipped nails and I was just like ‘This is Godspeaking.’”Daniels, whose 2001 and 2009 films, ​Monster’s Ball ​and ​Precious​,​​culminated into HalleBerry becoming the first Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar and Mo’Nique winning theOscar for Best Supporting Actress, gives Day’s overall performance the highest praise.“In my career I have worked with some incredible actors,” he says. “I don’t know thatI’ve experienced God on the set speaking to me. But He spoke to me through this girl.”Getting to Holiday’s essence was essential to Daniels. “I never wanted her to play her asa victim, as someone that was beaten up by the system. We wanted her to play her spirit, the wayBillie was, and she was badass. She was a boss. She was a G. She could handle herself,” heexplains. “She’s a badass but she’s also vulnerable and fragile.”Holiday’s life was incredibly tough. Born to teenage parents in 1915, Holiday grew up inpoverty, with her mother, who worked as a maid, unable to provide stable housing for her inBaltimore. Consequently, Holiday often stayed with her mother’s half-sister and her in-laws as ayoung child. Raped at the age of 10 but viewed in the courts as a prostitute, Holiday, whosefather played in jazz bands, was sent to a Catholic convent where she was even locked in a roomof dead bodies overnight. In New York City, Holiday, at age 14, was sex trafficked in a brothel.When both she and her mother were arrested for prostitution and jailed, Holiday, who hadalways loved music and scrubbed floors to be able to hear records back in Baltimore, turned tomusic, singing in after-hours clubs initially until she made a name for herself.Suzan-Lori Parks—the first Black female writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama forher play ​Topdog/Underdog​—penned this important script, setting the record straight onHoliday’s life. “She is pure and utter genius,” Daniels says of Parks. “Her script was on a levelof ‘I should be so lucky to be behind the camera with this, with these words’ and she knew whoBillie was and the research that she did was incredible.”
“As a Black woman, she understands,” he adds. “It was almost like Billie was speaking to her, so she was able to tap into Billie's spirit. And that she trusted me with her script. it meant theworld to me. I am in awe of her work.”The United States vs. Billie Holbillie us 5.jpg (635 KB)iday ​follows in huge footsteps. For many, there is alreadyone definitive Billie Holiday biopic. “The first movie that I can remember [about Billie Holiday]was ​Lady Sing the Blues​ and I guess that was about maybe 50 years ago,” Daniels says. “And itaffected me. It affected me because it showed Black people, for the first time, [as] glamorous. Ithad music, Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams.“It was ‘Black love,’” he continues. “You'd seen ​Carmen Jones​ with Harry Belafonte andDorothy Dandridge, but that was some 20 years even earlier than that. So, for our generation, itwas a shock to see two beautiful Black people in love, and yet you saw soul food and you sawHarlem, and you saw Black people, okay? So, it was reflective of what my experience was as aBlack kid growing up in the city.”That portrait, that imagery stayed with Daniels, inspired him even. “[​Lady Sings theBlues​]​​was one of the reasons why I'm even a filmmaker today. That movie seeped into my soul.I wanted to do what Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, and Billy Dee Williams did. But then I found outthat was not the true story of Billie Holiday. It was the story that Black people needed, that theculture needed at the time, because we needed a love story.”Black people and the world need something totally different now that is far morecomplex than Louis McKay, Holiday’s last husband played by Billy Dee Williams, trying to loveher through her drug addiction. “It’s the true story of Billie Holiday’s life,” explains Day who,like Diana Ross, makes her acting debut as Holiday. Ross also received an Oscar nomination forher portrayal. “That’s an interesting thing for people to see, especially fans, like me, of ​LadySings the Blues​—I was obsessed with that movie and Diana Ross’s performance, but the moviewas done in the early ‘70s; Hoover and Harry J. Anslinger were still in power, Louis McKay wasstill alive and the technical director on that film. There was a lot about her life that we weren’tallowed to know, and it is so necessary right now for people to truly understand her and tounderstand their history.”Anslinger’s hunting of Holiday drives this story. In New York City, a cabaret card wasrequired to perform in nightclubs and Anslinger made sure Holiday didn’t have one. That put herin a desperate situation and fueled some of her bad choices. “He really had quite malicious intentions when it came to Miss Holiday. Underneath he was just​​racist and discriminatory,” saysGarrett Hedlund, of ​Mudbound ​fame, who plays Anslinger. “He wanted to make an example outof her to show [that] Black [people], drugs and jazz were corrupting America.”And he stopped at nothing to bring her down, including hiring the Black agent JimmyFletcher, played by ​Moonlight​’s Trevante Rhodes, to help him. “Jimmy Fletcher’s an undercoveragent who infiltrated Billie's inner circle, prepped the conditions to further her addiction andhave her arrested very publicly and put in jail,” says ​The United States vs. Billie Holiday producer Tucker Tooley. Neither Fletcher nor Anslinger foresaw him falling for Holiday.“Jimmy Fletcher fell in love with her and really found out that what he was doing was thewrong thing,” adds Daniels who seized the opportunity to present “that Black love that we justdon’t see---rare, complicated, messy, real.”Even without Fletcher being a federal agent, he and Holiday were very much opposites.
She had a very rough childhood, while he had a very well-to-do upbringing. So they alreadycame from different ends of the spectrum. “Jimmy Fletcher’s a man who was born intoprivilege,” explains Rhodes who grew up near New Orleans with Holiday’s music in his home.“He didn't necessarily have the opportunity to see what life was like for people who looked likehim but didn't have the same benefits in life.BVSA.jpg (16 KB) Throughout the film, as he understands how theworld sees him and other people who look like him, he develops some understanding of that andtries his best to maneuver through life after that.”Holiday’s close friends, stylist Miss Freddy and hairdresser Roslyn, are played by MissLawrence, known for Lee Daniels’ TV series ​Star​, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, the Tonynominee also known for her breakout role as Lady Reed in the 2019 film ​My Name is Dolemitestarring Eddie Murphy.“We instantly clicked,” says Randolph of she and Day. “As you follow the story, all thethings Roslyn bears witness to with Billie, she's really her ride or die, literally and figuratively;it's a lot of heavy stuff. She loves her best friend, truly believes in her, and wants her to succeed.Roslyn wants to, in any way she can, make this rough journey just a wee bit more bearable and alittle bit easier if that's possible in some way.”“There was an actual Miss Freddy that Billie Holiday wrote about,” says Miss Lawrence.“He was a very openly gay Black man, an unapologetically gay man, who was gendernon-binary or, rather, gender non-conformist. I googled Miss Freddy—you couldn't find much, but I did find one thing that [Holiday] wrote about Miss Freddy in her journal. She talked about how Miss Freddy put her looks together and would borrow her clothes. Miss Freddy was famous for getting arrested for wearing what she wanted to wear and all that type of stuff.”“What stood out the most for me and made me really excited about playing MissFreddy,” continues Miss Lawrence, “was the idea that a Black gay man in the late ‘40s and ‘50swas bold and courageous
 enough to go out and take on the world as himself, or rather herself.”
Saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young was another close friend of Holiday’s. “Lester is Billie's best friend for a long period,” explains Tyler James Williams, most well-known forEverybody Hates Chris ​and ​Dear White People​, about how the two met while performing in the Count Basie Orchestra. Young was also the one who came up with the moniker truly fit for adiva, Lady Day. “When she formed her own band, he came along with her. They had a beautifulplatonic friendship. Everyone assumed they had dated or slept together, but they were just reallyclose friends who leaned on and took care of each other.” “There wasn't a lot of video footage of Lester,” says Williams, a musician himself, whoexplains that they based the character on the first-hand reports of people who had met him andbeen interviewed about him. “One thing that was said across the board is that he didn't give af**k about masculinity standards or anything like that. He was his own person, one of the coolestguys in the room, the most stylish dresser with his signature pork pie [hat]. The good thing washe was one of those guys who, if you met him, you never forgot him. . . .He was the originator of cool.”
Natasha Lyonne, the multiple Emmy and Golden Globe-nominee from ​Orange Is the New Black ​and ​Russian Doll ​fame, plays Tallulah Bankhead, a close friend of Holiday’s who isfamous (or infamous) and white. “Part of what Lee was hoping to articulate was this liberalwhite lady who’s never going to have to face the same consequences for her outrageousbehavior,” says Lyonne.“Here was Tallulah Bankhead getting praise for being so extreme in her behaviors,everybody knew she was a wild thing, while Billie Holiday, who was in her own way this largerthan life creature, was getting completely demolished under the weight of the system.”The United States vs. Billie Holiday ​is filled with other interesting characters fromHoliday’s life. Tone Bell, most recently seen in ​Sylvie’s Love​,​​plays John Levy, with whomHoliday had a complex romantic relationship; Evan Ross, a standout on Daniels’ TV series ​Star​, pops in as Federal Agent Sam Williams, Jimmy Fletcher’s colleague brought on to bring Holidaydown; and Rob Morgan, who turned in memorable performances in ​Just Mercy ​and ​Mudbound​,is Louis McKay, whom Billy Dee Williams played in ​Lady Sings the Blues​, but written in a fashion truer to his actual role in Holiday’s life, especially around the time of her death.
   Like most of Daniels’ films, getting ​The United States vs. Billie Holiday ​off the groundwas hard at first. But when Daniels believes in something, he finds a way to get it done and thisfilm was no different. “When Lee read [the script], he immediately said ‘I have to do thismovie,’” shares Daniels’ longtime producing partner Pamela Oas Williams. “At that stage welearned, much to our dismay, that this was not a movie for the studio system and we would haveto finance it independently. Lee does what Lee does best and has done with every single one ofhis movies, which is take out his Rolodex and start making calls.”Jordan Fudge of New Slate Ventures, a film and television finance fund that develops andproduces inclusive, intersectional material for diverse audiences, got one of those first calls. “Iwas blown away by the story,” says Fudge. “There are a lot of unknowns about Billie that thismovie is really great in bringing to light.”Still, it was Daniels himself that got Fudge to sign on. “Lee’s a genius; he's extremelycapable of telling a story and executing his vision on a very high level,” explains Fudge. “Irealized very quickly this was something I had to be involved in.”Making a period piece is always challenging. And this one was especially so. Locationsand sets help tell the story by creating an aesthetic that allows audiences to travel back in time sothey can learn key aspects of the lives of the people on the screen. Production designer Daniel T. Dorrance was one of the key creative team members charged with recreating Holiday’s world.
But sometimes the universe steps up with a little assistance and that was the case when it came to Holiday’s home.“We were looking for BVSA2.jpg (18 KB)locations for Billie,” explains Dorrance. “We had downsized her abit and Lee stumbled onto a news report about someone who was selling Billie Holiday’s old Fifth Avenue mansion. They were doing a walkthrough with a real estate agent—it was thislavish place. Lee said, ‘Why are we showing her down and out? She can’t have it bad all thetime; she had to make it at some point.’“That changed our whole thinking about what we should put Billie in. We raised thestakes on her a bit and put her in a brownstone with multiple rooms. We show that in the movie
and she even comments on it in dialogue, ‘I gotta keep working to pay for this house over my head.’”Despite its elegance, Holiday’s home still reflected her own decline over time, shares Dorrance. So they adjusted in numerous ways. “Maybe things weren’t getting paid or cared for,so we brought in some dead plants,” he shares as one example. “We had a couple of sequences inher house when she first comes out of jail; she’s trying to get back on the road and is havingrehearsals at home and brought the boys over to talk about it. Then later in the movie, we showher bedroom; she’s not healthy anymore and the staff isn’t around as often. We were trying tosubtly show how her life wasn’t as well cared for.”Although Holiday had rough beginnings, a rough middle and a rough ending, her clothing told a different story.
Glamour was the order of the day and Daniels made sure costume designer Paolo Nieddu, whose work on his game-changing hip-hop themed FOX series, Empire,earned him and the team four consecutive Emmy nominations, kept it at the forefront.“Part of the reason that I wanted to do the film is because I don’t know that we’ve reallycaptured my parents and grandparents and what the world of fashion meant, what the world ofstyle meant,” says Daniels.“I think Black people back then and even now have been the epicenter of fashion. AndBillie Holiday was. Often times with a lot of Black people, you would never know that they werepoor,” he continues. “There’s this innate ability to camouflage all the pain and the hurt that we’reexperiencing with the glamour that’s on our bodies. And that’s what Billie was able to doexquisitely. So, for me, I’m really proud of all of the fashion that’s in the film.”By Nieddu’s account there are roughly 55 looks for Billie Holiday in the film and theytruly help tell her story, which was no easy task. “Like any project I'll go through looking at [pictures] and [say] ‘here's a performance look and here's she's at home,’” Nieddu explains. “Youstart to envision the general idea. If somebody's scripted in their bedroom, they're in bed clothes.I start to gather my categories and so I started with that and then [began] looking up pictures of Billie. It's tricky because so many of the pictures are staged publicity photos and so there's a lotof things that happen in this film that are not photographically documented.”As Nieddu conferred with Daniels, he found himself “showing Lee different Billies”because he literally uncovered a plethora of looks for her. “It’s crazy because Billie in googleimage comes up in a thousand different ways. I can’t believe how different one person who lived for 44 years can look,” he says. “Whether it was a paparazzi looking photo or a staged photo or astill from a movie or footage, her hair, her makeup, her weight, her style, it was all over [thespectrum]. There's a quintessential feeling. I feel for the time she would have been consideredavant-garde in the way Grace Jones or Madonna, somebody who's been a style icon who isdifferent all the time, are. She seemed to always have these different looks, which was cool, andallowed us to have a lot of range.” In Day, Nieddu found a more than willing collaborator. “She’s a huge Billie Holiday fan and she knew a lot just in her head,” he says. “I had done research and Andra knew these things[naturally]. She loves vintage and I love vintage. She loves glamour and I love glamour so it just sort of naturally evolved.”Of Nieddu, Day says, “I don't know that I would have really trusted anyone else with it. His attention to detail and his care with every little thing, to a cufflink, to the way socks wereflipping, every little detail. To me watching him work was a blessing.”Daniels wasn’t looking for an exact replica of Holiday’s wardrobe, Nieddu notes. Instead,he wanted to capture the essence of the aesthetic, but still be open to the creative possibilities ofthe era. “Lee said, ‘I don’t want to be beat over the head with the ‘40s. I want an essence of theperiod,’” Nieddu recalls. “We did a scene with Billie and Louis Armstrong and we matched aphoto of them together. We matched the look but guessed the colors.”Glamour is one of the reasons ​Lady Sings the Blues ​remains a classic. And, there, theyenlisted Bob Mackie to help amplify the glamour. A collaboration with ​Prada​ brought a similarvibe to ​The United States vs. Billie Holiday​. The collaboration was suggested to Daniels by AnnaWintour. But it was Daniels’ personal relationship with Miuccia Prada, the brand’s co-creativedirector, that sealed the deal.“If you look at Prada as a fashion house, you can really see a parallel; there’s aconnection. It was such a good fit in terms of a brand,” Nieddu says. Still the collaboration was aprocess.“We came up with nine moments in the script where we wanted to place their looks andwhat should be Prada and we didn't all do gowns,” Nieddu says. “I was like ‘let's do a robe and acasual look and a suit look’ to get a well-rounded wardrobe of theirs to interpret for Billie.”To pull it off, Nieddu sent moodboards to Prada. The house has done a profound workwithin its archive in order to fulfill the complete vision of the character as conceptualized by Lee and Nieddu. These existing Prada looks from the archive were the starting point to develop,together with Lee and Nieddu, the original, personalized and custom-made looks of BillieHoliday.After consulting pictures of Holiday, Nieddu researched Vogue.com to match the visions.“I would go through and look at each picture and say ‘oh that shape looks like this dress’ and Iwould mark those off, and that's how we put together the design package for each look.”“With the Pradas, there are things on these dresses that are more modern, and that areinterpretations, not direct copies of a vintage dress or a direct interpretation exactly like Billiewore. It's derived from a feeling of her,” Nieddu continues. “At first, I thought it should all beexact. But we talked about it and decided ‘we're not making a biography, we're making art,’ sothat was how the clothes had a little bit of freedom.”Prada’s integration into the film is seamless. The audience’s very first introduction toHoliday is in a stunning Prada design. It’s a column dress, inspired by the Prada SS14 collection,in double ivory silk satin with a sweetheart neckline and precious crystal embroidery,accessorized with a glamorous and sophisticated updo, with the white gardenia she would oftenwear sitting prominently on her right side, further enhanced by the stunning shimmery earringscascading from her ears down her neck set off by a necklace obscured by the mic, suggesting thesinger and it are one. That look is picked up again later in the narrative with an even moreexplosive dramatic effect.
“His relationship with Prada was incredible. He was willing to speak up and to make surethat everything was exactly how it needed to be for her, for what Lee wanted,” Day says ofNieddu. “One of things we remembered is that we wanted to be period, but we wanted toremember that Billie Holiday was a global superstar at the time. So she got all of the innovativenew things and people wrote articles about the way that she dressed and how she presentedherself, and they took all that into consideration. Their work helped me to go deeper in my work.I’m heavily inspired by her but, for building the character, wearing the clothes and hermannerisms, really helped me drop into a place where I could portray her without it feeling likean impersonation.”Hair and makeup were also critical to Day’s transformation, with her personal hairstylistStacie Merriman working with extraordinary hair department head Charles Gregory Ross. Infact Charles had to design a cadre of intricate and difficult wigs for many of the key cast thatwere intricate and invisible on-screen; truly works of art. Sadly, Mr. Ross passed in April 2020from COVID, making ​The United States vs. Billie Holiday​ among the last of his films, in whatwas an amazing career that spanned over 25 years.
Working in tandem with makeup departmenthead Laini Thompson, the two of them brought Holiday to life, capturing her at both her mostglorious and worst moments.Merriman shares that “the vision was to keep the hair as authentic and true as to howBillie Holiday wore hers. Extensive research of Billie’s hair looks was done dating back to theyears 1940’s and 1950’s. All of the hair looks were created to coincide with the costumes shewore. We also received valuable input from costume designer Paolo Nieddu so that they matchedher beautifully designed costumes. It was important that we respected how women wore theirclothing and hair during that period.”“Luckily, Charles Gregory and I had six weeks to pull together the research, which iskind of unheard of,” Thompson says. That time, however, was necessary because of “the iconicand legendary person Billie Holiday was and is.”Thompson recalls that “there was so much research that I think I slept and ate BillieHoliday photos. I went through so many photos of her that I could tell you what year theywere from just by looking at them.”Every detail, including her lip color and iconic V pattern nail motif, was covered. “Thenails had a shooting schedule all of their own,” Thompson quips. Day’s eye color was addressedas well. “Because Billie’s eyes were brown and Andra’s are like a green,” brown contacts wereessential. “Without the contacts, she just looked out of place,” says Thompson. “She wore thebrown contacts every day.”“She was so meticulous about her look. She definitely wore makeup all the time, evenwhen she was around the house,” Thompson says of Holiday, and was “a perfect example ofdaytime soap operas where people wake up and they’re all just glamorous and perfect. That wasBillie Holiday. She was vested in her look.”
Over time, aging and, of course, her drug and alcohol use, took its toll and that too wasreflected in hair and makeup. “During the death scene, we opted, because she had cirrhosis of theliver, to have [her eyes] hand-painted a jaundice color,” says Thompson.That transformation even extended to her skin tone. “Instead of using her regularfoundation, we used a MAC Yellow Airbrush Medium to tone her skin to yellow to give it thatfeel of how people who have liver damage start to turn yellow. That part was researched andresearched,” says Thompson.
“There were prosthetic teeth that were hand-done because the drugs impacted how theywould look,” Thompson continues. “So we had these prosthetic teeth made for her as well.”This, of course, took considerable time during filming, even on a tight schedule. “In thecourse of a day, we could switch from the forties to the fifties, so that meant that everything hadto be completely changed over from her facial makeup, hair and her nails. Sometimes thatturnover would take an hour or two, which they wanted it done in 15 minutes,” says Thompson.Musi
ANIDA.jpg (10 KB)
c is, of course, essential to The United States vs. Billie Holiday. “Suzan-Lori Parksexquisitely structured the songs to tell the story so each song moves our story ahead and tells thesituation that we’re in,” Daniels explains. “As the story is unfolding, each song is representativeof the situation that Billie was going through. For example, I think the first song we open with is“All of Me.””That moment is important because it is the true beginning of Holiday actually telling herstory. Music was how she told her truth. A clue to this is given in the scene preceding the song,through Holiday’s response to an interview question regarding the controversy surrounding hersinging “Strange Fruit.” At that moment, she laments the government’s treatment of her andquips “They just want me to shut up and sing “All of Me.”” It’s that statement and her personalreality or hell even that that gives such lyrics like “All of me/Why not take all of me” added punch in her delivery.
Originally, they had intended to have Day lip sync to pre-recorded tracks, but Daniels justwasn’t feeling it during filming and needed to create a real connection. Especially with thecarefully curated list of songs that include “Strange Fruit,” of course, as well as other signatures,“All of Me” and “God Bless the Child.”Given how Holiday organically expressed her craft, shooting live was perhaps the onlyway. “She lived in her truth,” Daniels says. “She never once sang the same song the same way.She was like an instrument. It was a clarinet or a cello. She didn’t know how to repeat herself,ever.”By the time, “Strange Fruit” is performed fully in the film, it’s an especially dramaticmoment, packed with emotion. It is one of the rare instances Day is in full iconic Lady Daymode, gardenia and all, and actually singing.
But Day singing live on camera for certain scenesduring filming did present unique challenges. Mainly it meant finding a way to rig modernmicrophones into period microphones, which l ook extremely different than the ones used today.“There are a lot of microphones on Billie Holiday,” explains Prop Master Simone Leclerc.One particular challenge occurred early in the film. Holiday’s attempt to perform“Strange Fruit,” created mayhem both onscreen and off. “We put a real microphone inside aperiod microphone so we could record the voice. When we were shooting, she was singing into a1944 microphone. She's singing ‘Strange Fruit’ with a big band, and the police arrest her onstage. The microphone fell onto the ground, hard. This wasn’t supposed to happen, but she wasreally in her role,” explains Leclerc.“Everybody felt nervous, the sound guys, me; I was terrified because if it broke, whatwould we do? The scene wouldn't work. The microphone fell on the floor 22 times. If it had beenthe other kind of microphone that was all in one piece, it would have broken . . . we were lucky. If there is a god of props, he was there that day!”
By the time Day performs a full version of “Strange Fruit,” it is quite impactful. In thefilm, it occurs only after she, herself, has witnessed a lynching. Daniels dramatically transportsHoliday from that moment, taking her through a house of horror, if you will, of which there is nopersonal escape, where she emerges on the other side, looking like a million bucks on theoutside, but forever scarred on the inside. And considering what she’s been through, that was noeasy feat. The performance of “Strange Fruit” is chilling and true to how Holiday actually sangit. She demanded absolute silence whenever she sang it.“Doing “Strange Fruit” live as her, and as myself, was a painful experience. It was [also]cathartic at the same time, in a weird way. We had to do take after take. And, every time we didthe take, it was like a sigh of relief, like something was being loosed in me,” says Day. “It mademe appreciate her, my parents, and the people now who are still fighting for multiple causes. Itwas a very surreal experience. It's hard to describe. It was challenging and painful and reallyfreeing, all of those things together. I don't think I'll ever forget it or ever be able to access it likethat again either, no matter how many times I sing it.”By the time this show-stopping performance of “Strange Fruit” comes in the film, theaudience has gotten a full education on the price Holiday has already paid to sing it. Of course, it is also the foreshadowing of Holiday’s own lynching orchestrated by Anslinger.
“Sometimes in biopics they fall short because they’re too afraid to show all of the truthand leave out crucial points,” says Randolph, whose Roslyn sees Holiday near the end, of ​The United States vs. Billie Holiday​, “but the reason why we like these people, and they are legendsis because they’ve gone through the ups and downs to make them what they are. ”In typical Lee Daniels’ fashion, he goes against the grain, daring to blow up the imagemost people have of the great Billie Holiday, particularly the portrait in ​Lady Sings the Bluesnearly 50 years ago that earned Diana Ross an Oscar nomination, to set the record straight.“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,” she sang in horror and disgust, sounding the alarm about theugly truth of racism. Instead of being lauded for using her fame to amplify awareness around thiscrime against humanity, she was hunted.“I would say that God wanted her story to be told, really and truly,” says theGrammy-nominated Day, who just embodies the music and cultural icon in her outstandingdebut.“The government came for her and she was unafraid,” surmises Daniels. “They tookaway her Cabaret Card license, so that she couldn't sing it. That didn’t stop her. And the onlyway they stopped her was on her deathbed. So, she’s a hero. Billie Holiday is a bona fide hero.”On her deathbed, the record shows, says Daniels, that she told Anslinger ‘your grandkidswill be singing “Strange Fruit.”” And during a protest march for Breonna Taylor, Danielsreceived a video from a friend where “in the chaos of the cops and helicopters, you see this girlsinging in the middle of all this crazy, “Strange Fruit.””“I want audiences to understand that leaders come in all shapes and sizes and colors,”Daniels says. “I want people to walk away from this movie knowing that you can make a changebecause that’s what Billie Holiday did in her own way.”“The soul of this film is service and sacrifice,” says Day, reflecting on the great personalprice Holiday paid to bring awareness to the plight of Black people, her people, by not backingdown from singing “Strange Fruit.”Ultimately, “it’s about healing,” says Day. “Healing is a big one.” In fact, inspired by“Strange Fruit,” Andra Day wrote and performed a response song for the film entitled “Tigressand Tweed.” As Day explains,“I was thinking that if Billie Holiday was with us today, howwould she have wanted to see “Strange Fruit” evolved for what it is that we need now. And ifthat scares people, and makes them uncomfortable, then I’m OK with that. I really wanted thissong to be something that motivated people and that reminded them that we DO have power tomove things forward.”

Comments(0)

Log in to comment