Imagine yourself in one of New York’s finest nightclubs, the Café Society, in March 1939. You are dressed in your best evening attire as you enjoy the raspy melodies of 23-year-old Billie Holiday.
The fine jazzy tunes of her band have you rocking all night long. Then suddenly, the light dims and the only thing you see is a spotlight on Holiday’s gloomy face. The world around you stops. You settle in your seat while you wonder what’s next. Holiday softly belts out “Southern trees…” and begins to describe African-American bodies swinging lifeless from a tree trunk rooted in the south. Her striking voice sends chills throughout your body. You feel the grief in every word she sings and as you tear up. The song ends and the spotlight fades. The lights return but the songstress is long gone.
You just witnessed Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” performance for the very first time. From that night forward, the singer continued to perform the song for the next 20 years – bringing awareness of an unjust crime.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Last Friday we experienced Billie Holiday’s toughest battles in Hulu’s, The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Lee Daniels brilliantly centers the story behind the song “Strange Fruit” and its impact on the songstress life. Inspired by the 1937 poem Bitter Fruit, written by Abel Meeropol, the song exposes the hideous acts of lynching. It mourns the lives of many African-Americans lynched by white supremacists – a reality they wanted to hide from America’s History. The United States government caught the wave of the Holiday act and labeled it a threat to society. For a decade the U.S. targeted the jazz songstress after requesting Holiday to discontinue the song’s performance countless times.
“Your grandchildren will be singing this song.”– Billie Holiday
Lee Daniels cohesively mirrored the ugly truth of the government’s tactics to silence Holiday. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics unit in the late 40s used a black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher to spy on Holiday and ultimately arrest her for possession of drugs and use. Holiday resumed to perform and tour across the U.S after serving 18 months in jail. Like so many people in the black community, she needed helped not jail time. We learned of her drug addiction as it tied back to her past trauma. The film taught us how Holiday’s problems were adjacent to the world she was living in as a black woman. Audiences were bought to tears after seeing the vivid memories of Holiday’s past. It poetically flowed into her views of the world and as to why she fought so hard for “Strange Fruit”.
A Legacy Continues
It was moving to see Andra Day embody the songstress entire existence – from the way she spoke, smoked a cigarette, to the way that she performed. The role did not come easy as Day lost close to 30lbs and began to smoke like Lady Day. We witnessed a perfected craft in acting as Andra Day captured Holiday’s soul. The role was well worth the honor because Day won her first Golden Globe Award from the debut performance. Day is now the first black woman in 35 years to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress. The film also features an amazing all-star cast including Moonlight Trevante Rhodes, Everybody Hates Chris Tyler James Williams, and Miss Lawrence as Miss Freddy. Evan Ross also made an appearance – his mother, Diana Ross, portrayed Billie Holiday in 1972’s The Lady Sings the Blues.
Billie Holiday was a Civil Rights Activist before the Civil Rights Movement. She continued to perform “Strange Fruit” until her death in 1959. Holiday was the voice of justice as we continue to sing her song today. After passing away, she won multiple Grammy Awards. The song “Strange Fruit” was named Song of the Century by Time magazine in 1999.
Today, we continue to fight for the same justice as police brutality is the new form of lynching. Lee Daniels stated his purpose in this film was to honor Holiday in hopes for the U.S. to recognize lynching as a hate crime. The phenomenal film can be streamed now on Hulu. We recommend that all of our MEFeaters give it a watch.