Exclusive: Andra Day On The Golden Globe-Winning ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’

‘I think the reason her story is still relevant is because it’s never truly been told’

The United States vs. Billie Holiday” Photo: Hulu

If you’ve seen Lady Sings the Blues and think you have The United States vs. Billie Holiday figured out, you are in for a surprise. A shock even. For decades, the picture most of us have had of Billie Holiday is one of a hopeless drug addict with awful taste in men, save for the one man, played by Billy Dee Williams, who loved Holiday fiercely but still couldn’t pull her from the clenches of drugs.

Many people also think of her solely as the woman who sang the antilynching song, “Strange Fruit,” back in 1939. And, if we are telling the truth, we thought that was it. Only it wasn’t.

But now it’s 2021, and we should be used to investigating the full truth about Black women, especially the famous ones. After all, don’t they still downplay that Josephine Baker was a spy for the French Resistance during World War II? Or ignore how active Madam C.J. Walker was in the antilynching movement? Not to mention, we still don’t have a proper film for Nina Simone, who certainly used her voice to stand up against injustice during the civil rights movement.

That sad reality of Black women going ignored despite our heroism is not lost on Andra Day, who strips back the layers of the largely unsung Holiday to render her in ways we’ve never seen in the newly released Lee Daniels-directed film.

“We’re not talking about the jazz singer. We are not talking about a troubled person. We are talking about a hero,” says Day, the singer up until now who is perhaps most widely known for singing social justice anthem “Rise Up.” But she has a long history, and this afternoon, she is chatting about her Golden Globe nomination for best actress. “We are talking about the true godmother of the civil rights movement. If it were not for her sacrifice or her singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ we would not know the civil rights movement as we know it today.”

That is no hyperbole or exaggeration on Day’s part. Not when you know the full story of how the federal government, particularly Harry J. Anslinger, relentlessly targeted Holiday for refusing his command to stop singing “Strange Fruit.” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks crafted the screenplay for The United States vs. Billie Holiday and largely based it on a chapter of the bestselling book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by British writer Johann Hari, in which he wrote about Anslinger’s witch hunt of Holiday.

Anslinger, played by Garret Hedlund in the film, pulled every dirty trick to bring Holiday down. That included getting drug dealers to offer her drugs when she was trying to get clean, planting drugs on her to arrest her, as well as hiring Black federal agents like Jimmy Fletcher, played by Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, to infiltrate the Black clubs in which Holiday sang even though he personally disliked Black people. The kicker is Fletcher ultimately got caught in Holiday’s web as they later began a physically and emotionally charged love affair that plays out on the screen.

“I think the reason her story is still relevant is because it’s never truly been told,” Day says. “And I think that is why Black stories are consistently relevant because you realize, ‘oh, we were not told the true history of America… we’re not told the true history about Black history.’”

Getting to the core of the real Billie Holiday was personally challenging for Day. First and foremost, she never saw herself as an actress, and neither did Daniels, to be truthful. Friends brought them together and, once Daniels saw it too, Day put in the work, losing 40 pounds and also incorporating Holiday’s vices of drinking and smoking into her own life. In order to capture Holiday’s musical magic, Day even had to change the way she sang. Helping to whip Day into shape was actress and acting coach Tasha Smith.

“Black women are very rarely celebrated. Period,” Day explains. That’s one of the many reasons The United States vs. Billie Holiday means so much to her. “When we have the movies that come along like this, that celebrate us in our resilience, that celebrate us in the scope of our humaneness, we have to pay attention to these because things like this movie say we are allowed to be human. And as Black women we constantly feel like, ‘okay, we have to live up to people’s expectations,’ these conflicting expectations when we never will,” Day continues.

“This movie simply says we can just allow Billie Holiday to be and love her and celebrate and support her. And it gives us an example. It gives us space to say, ‘this is how we need to be towards our women, towards our Black women.’ So that’s why this movie means so much to me.”

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ATL-based Ronda Racha Penrice is a writer/cultural critic specializing in film/TV, lifestyle, and more. She is the author of Black American History For Dummies.

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