‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ Director Lee Daniels on the Singer’s Real Legacy: Her Activism

Billie Holiday
AP Photo/File

The first time I saw myself on-screen was in 1972. The film was “Lady Sings the Blues,” a cinematic masterpiece about jazz icon Billie Holiday. At 13 years old, I could not believe I was seeing Black people living large, dripping in diamonds and furs, and loving each other on the big screen. That experience changed my life and inspired me to become the filmmaker I am today. Nearly a half-century later, I remain indebted to everyone who made that movie. It is a significant part of my Black history. Filmmakers, journalists and historians around the world have showcased Billie Holiday’s glamour and musical talent. But it was much later in my career that I learned of Billie’s activism and the government’s persistent assault upon it. Most people do not know just how courageous Billie Holiday was — traveling through the Jim Crow South, defying the KKK, jeopardizing her own safety, her own livelihood, to use her platform to raise public awareness about the lynching of Black people here in the United States. And during the 1930s and ’40s, no less. I think Miss Holiday planted a seed that flourished into what history now calls the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

“Strange Fruit,” which is undeniably the most impactful song of her career, was about lynching. It was Billie’s protest tune. She deliberately performed it to engender discomfort and to raise consciousness among audiences. Knowing that Black bodies were being lynched devastated her. She wanted it to end. The federal government took extreme measures to suppress her lynching abolition efforts, yet she continued to bravely perform the song in a range of venues, including theaters with predominantly white audiences. This important part of her legacy belongs in Black history narratives. It is an aspect of her artistry that deserves to be documented and celebrated.

We shot “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” a year before the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. As I watched heartbroken, frustrated people marching in the streets last summer protesting the senseless killings of unarmed Black Americans, I thought constantly about the film we had just made. Its timing was both coincidental and emotionally overwhelming. Millions of people across our country and around the world were protesting the 21st-century version of what Billie Holiday sang about in “Strange Fruit.”

The opportunity to tell this powerful yet tragic story of a Black bisexual activist was a gift for me. Doing it alongside other Black artists was an enormous privilege. This moment of Black history that we were able to create together is an experience I will always cherish as a highlight of my own professional life. But the work is far from over.

Here we are in 2021, more than 80 years since Billie first sang “Strange Fruit,” and Black bodies are still being murdered without consequence — and in the case of Black trans women, without sufficient concern.

As uprisings were occurring in June 2020, the United States Senate failed to pass the proposed Emmett Till Antilynching Act, legislation that would designate lynching a hate crime. As this act continues to hang in the balance of Congress, it is my hope that “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” will add to national conversations about lynching (and police reform and systemic  racism and environmental racism) and ultimately help compel federal lawmakers to take long overdue legislative action. They owe this to Billie and to so many others who have been fighting against the brutal horrors of lynching for centuries.

This film is my contribution to Black history at this particular moment in time, and I stand alongside many other Black creators who have told stories this year that contribute to correct our Black history: “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “One Night in Miami,” “Small Axe,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Da 5 Bloods,” to name just a few. I can only hope the film helps people better understand who Billie Holiday was and the generosity of her activism.

Lee Daniels is a director, producer and screenwriter. His credits include “Precious,” “The Paperboy,” the TV series “Empire” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” His latest work is “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” starring Andra Day.