The United States Vs Billie Holiday, Lee Daniels’ unflinching portrait of the legendary singer Billie Holiday’s frequent mistreatment and harassment at the hands of the US Government and the FBI, is released today on DVD. Empire recently sat down with Daniels, who explained to us why he was drawn to the story of Holiday, whose most famous song, 1939’s ‘Strange Fruit’, bore the brunt of the authoritarian ire with its lyrics protesting the lynching of Black people. Today, ‘Strange Fruit’ is considered one of the greatest, and most important, songs of all time, and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2002. And, as Daniels tells Empire, it was the impact of that song that reminded him of how timely and universal the themes of Holiday’s life are today.
“I was only here to tell Billie’s story,” he says. “I wasn’t really looking at the correlation of today. Until George Floyd happened and I was in the edit, and the riots were happening. Two friends of mine sent me two separate videos of kids singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in the midst of the riots, with helicopters over their heads, police in the streets, chaos. It was crazy! I thought, ‘Oh my god, we’ve come full circle’. It dawned on me, the irony of her singing ‘Strange Fruit’ and how it resonates today. Everything that my grandmother and grandfather — who would have been Billie Holiday’s age — went through, we’re still going through.”
No-one was writing with such authenticity at that time.
Daniels also went on to talk about how his early exposure to Holiday’s work had had a huge impact on him. “I read her autobiography as a 12 year old,” he says of the 1956 book, Lady Sings The Blues, which was published just three years before Holiday’s tragic death in 1959, at the age of 44. “I was taken aback because no-one was writing with such authenticity at that time. I hadn’t read anything that was as honest and as raw. It was iconoclastic, revolutionary. Billie’s realness affected me in an unconscious way. If you look at my early work, even as a producer, I strove for authenticity and a rawness that I really think emanated from my initial read of her autobiography.”
For more from Daniels on how he brought Billie Holiday, played to unforgettable Oscar-nominated effect by Andra Day, to the big screen, check out a future issue of Empire. The United States Vs Billie Holiday is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.