Lee Daniels was eager to direct “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” because this was a side of the legendary singer’s story he never knew: “I didn’t understand how this story in history had never been told before. When you think about what she did with ‘Strange Fruit,’ that was about the lynching of Black men and women in the South and the government trying to stop her from singing that song … It’s not taught in schools.” Watch our exclusive video interview with Daniels above.
“When you think of civil rights leaders you think of Martin Luther King, you think of Malcolm X or Gandhi, and maybe Rosa Parks. You don’t really think of Billie Holiday,” Daniels says. The image many have of her is that of “a troubled jazz singer who had issues with drugs, that was in and out of jail. That was what they wanted us to think of her.”
The script by Suzan-Lori Parks showed him the woman underneath, and he cast R&B singer and first-time actress Andra Day in the starring role. “She understood the spirit of Billie and what it was that I wanted to accomplish with Billie because I wanted to show her not as a victim but as a three-dimensional, fucked-up but beautiful, flawed but spiritual individual,” he explains. “She represents so many Black women that have embraced me.”
The film also tells the story of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an FBI agent who gained her trust and sold her out, but eventually fell in love with her. “On his journey we see a Black man that’s troubled. It reminded me of my dad,” says Daniels, whose father was a cop in Philadelphia “traumatized” by the work he was forced to do against the Black militant group MOVE, which was ultimately bombed by police in 1985.
So “United States vs. Billie Holiday” is also a story of “what the government does to us” to use, gaslight and discredit its own people, especially when they demand to be treated equally.
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