Lee Daniels, ‘Billie Holiday’ cast over racist government harassment of legendary singer


Andra Day was not everything from the beginning. The rising singer-turned-actress of “Rise Up” doubted her ability to portray legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday in a biopic directed by Lee Daniels (Precious, Empire). Much of his concern stemmed from the fact that Holiday had already been so masterfully played by Diana Ross (in the Oscar-nominated film The lady sings the blues) and Audra McDonald (in the Tony-winning musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill).

“It was the fear of not being good enough,” Day tells Yahoo Entertainment while promoting his new movie. United States vs. Billie Holiday. “Not even not being good enough, not being an actress. That was huge, and I’m such a fan of Billie Holiday that my worst nightmare was, ‘Oh, we have Billie Holiday, amazing. We have Diana Ross, amazing. We have Audra McDonald on Broadway, amazing. And do you remember that time Andra Day tried to be Billie too? Like that’s the shit that kept running through my head. “(It turned out Day was good enough: She’s up for the Golden Globe this weekend for Best Actress in Drama and is generating a lot of interest at the Oscars for his powerful performance).

“And I didn’t want to redo The lady sings the blues”Day continues. “Because I say, ‘It’s perfect. Why would we come close to that? ‘”

That wouldn’t be a problem either. While both previous projects took a broader look at the iconic singer’s illustrious but tragic life and career, Daniels’ film, as its title suggests, focused on the US government’s prolonged harassment of Holiday. Although the FBI’s interest in Holiday, directed by J. Edgar Hoover and executed by Harry J. Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund in the film), was publicly advertised as a precursor to the war on drugs (Holiday had an addiction to drugs). well-documented heroin), it is clear that the government sought to silence the singer’s socially urgent music, most notably the song “Strange Fruit,” which drew attention to the lynching of black people across the United States.

“He was a racist, Harry Anslinger was a racist,” says Daniels bluntly. “And I think it probably attracted me in a very unhealthy way. I couldn’t understand that this Beyoncé, Cardi B, Rihanna of this generation, had this kind of power over white America. And I think that power, combined with the song ‘Strange Fruit’, was like a Molotov cocktail. And it had to stop.

“He would do everything he could to stop her. They harassed her until she died. They planted drugs on her, paid her boyfriends to keep pumping her drugs when she tried to quit. This is a woman who knew she was addicted, who knew she needed help and couldn’t find it anywhere. “

United States vs. Billie Holiday (Photo: Hulu)

The film and its cast contrast the federal harassment of Holiday with white celebrities such as Judy Garland, the Wizard of Oz great who had a well-known battle with drug abuse. “White actresses and singers at the time like Judy Garland [was] doing the same, if not more, and they turned a blind eye, ”says Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who plays Roslyn, Holiday’s hairdresser and confidant. “That lets me know how powerful she was. So it really made an impact, where Judy Garland, who the world loves and reveres equally, was not a threat. “

“We’ve seen the federal government find some reason to attack the black community as a whole,” says Tyler James Williams (Everybody hates Chris dear white people), who plays renowned saxophonist Lester Young. “We see that with many other artists at that time. [White jazz musician] Stan Getz had as big a drug problem as Lady, but not as big as a targeted assault. The federal government has a very bad history with loud and proud black people. We can’t stop looking at that. “

United States vs. Billie Holiday is currently broadcasting Hulu.

Video produced by Jen Kucsak and John Santo

Watch Evan Ross talk about his family’s connection to the Billie Holiday story:

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