A-little-known chapter in U.S. race relations is given a fascinating exploration in “Strange Fruit,” which tells the story of the ultimate — and virtually the only — song about lynching. The fact it was actually written by a Russian-Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx is the main hook here, and an implicit rebuttal to recent black anti-Semitism, in a tale that could have easily sustained feature length. The one-hour clock-in, though, suggests a pubcasting future. (In fact, docu has a PBS date next February.) Well-made pic would be an excellent cornerstone for a deeper-than-VH1 series of song biographies.
When music fans, not to mention radio programmers, first heard the tune in 1939, with its lyrics describing “the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,” they were understandably aghast. What most didn’t realize, and what many don’t know today, is the song’s premier interpreter, Billie Holiday, had no hand in writing it. That honor went entirely to Abel Meeropol, using the ethnically ambiguous pen name of Lewis Allen.
An activist in the then radical Teachers Union, and a carefully closeted Communist, Meeropol made visceral the growing disgust for Southern treatment of blacks at a time when any criticism of lynching was branded anti-American.
Pic describes, somewhat sketchily, volatile first meeting between Meeropol, Holiday and Barney Josephson, owner of the integrated nightclub Cafe Society, where the piece was first performed. It went on to international acclaim, with versions recorded by everyone from Josh White to UB40 and Cassandra Wilson — generally without the benefit of radio play or record company support, making it one of the longest-running “alternative” success stories in showbiz history.
Here, that process is described by many eloquent voices, including those of performers Abbey Lincoln, Pete Seeger and Don Byron (who also contributes a terrific score), and of writers like Amiri Baraka and Farah Jasmine Griffith.
Helmer Joel Katz’s only crimes are those of omission, as he leaves out many of the important details discussed in two books (of the same name) by David Margolick and Hilton Als. These include uber-activist Paul Robeson’s distaste for the song — too much about victimhood, he thought — and Holiday’s own attitudes about it. Pic touches on Meeropol’s bewilderment when Holiday’s ghostwritten autobiog implied she had written the song, but there’s little sense of the fallout from that. For that matter, there are few complete performances of the song itself.
Where pic excels is in the depiction of a rich leftist movement, with several cultures interacting expressively in the 1930s and ’40s. The songwriter and his teacher-wife, Anne, later became best known for adopting the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, after the alleged spies were executed, and “Strange Fruit” points out that the two lads were picked up at the house of legendary black leader W.E.B. DuBois. The sons are seen on-camera, with the elder describing Meeropol as “the funniest man I ever knew.” He was also prone to dark depressions, and died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1986, three years younger than the century at that point. Pic is a fitting tribute, if not a lingering one.