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Lee Daniels felt a sense of urgency to direct and produce The United States vs. Billie Holiday after reading the script (and the Johann Hari book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, that it was based on) a few years ago. Before that, he didn’t really know that legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday was aggressively targeted by the U.S. government with drug charges for years until her death.
“I didn't understand I could be a Black man in my mid-50s and not understand that this story wasn't [being told],” Daniels, 61, said. “You know, I take pride in knowing my Black history. So then I started thinking I had to tell the story.”
The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which premieres on February 26 on Hulu, explores the tumultuous life of the singer, played by Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day, following the release of her controversial and emotional ballad, “Strange Fruit,” which drew attention from the FBI after it became a protest cry against the lynching of Black people in the United States (the script was written by Susan Lori Parks, the first African- American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama). The federal government worked for years to keep Holiday from performing the song, using her drug addiction to arrest and prosecute her. Out of defiance, Holiday sang it anyways.
Lee chatted with GQ earlier this month about what motivated him to make this movie, his excitement over returning to film directing, and Holiday’s complex life. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Where are you right now? Did you have a good Valentine's Day?
I’m in LA. It was fantastic. I brought some candy for my partner and then I kept eating it. Why do we feel guilty eating chocolate? I forgot what it tastes like, I went crazy.
I was reading recently that you started fasting during the pandemic?
Yes and even prior to that I had taken chocolate out of my diet, that was a given. Girl, I went in on the chocolate and I ain’t look back. It was a place called Edelweiss. And it is off the chain in Beverly Hills, I mean off the chain.
When did you first discover Billie Holiday’s music? Did you grow up as a big fan?
No, I didn’t grow up as a big fan, I didn't know her work. I knew her because of Lady Sings The Blues as a kid. I watched that movie as a kid in the theater and it really blew my mind. I just had never seen Black people look so beautiful. And the music was incredible and the story was a great love story. Then I discovered Billie Holiday’s music in my late 30s/40s.
How did you feel when you first heard “Strange Fruit”?
When I first heard it, it was in Lady Sings the Blues and it didn’t really have an affect on me. And so I heard it again, [but] I wasn't really understanding until I read the [United States vs. Billie Holiday] script. When I read the script and then listened to those lyrics, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Where have I been all this time to not understand the importance of that song? So I made it a point to make sure that nobody else is gonna feel the way that I felt.
There’s Oscar buzz surrounding Andra Day, who also received a Golden Globes nomination for her portrayal of Lady Day. We’ve never seen her in a film role before. When did you realize she’d be great for it?
We've never seen her in any role. Like we’d never seen Gabourey Sidibe in any role [Sidibe made her acting debut in Daniel’s 2009 film Precious, for which she earned Golden Globe and Academy Award best actress nominations]. So that was so much fun, the two of us together on that journey. When you look at it, you can see God at work. Her transformation is like none other that I have witnessed before.
Andra is a very talented singer. What was it like working with her on Bilie’s songs?
I saw her at the Academy Awards and I was blown away by her performance. She sang “Strange Fruit” for me as an audition and that was really good. When you see a singing performance on film, nine times out of ten they’re pre-recorded by the singer or the actor for production reasons, and it’s dangerous to shoot live. So before we started shooting, we prerecorded all of the music and all 13 songs or however many songs we were shooting. But then as we grew, as we understood the significance of these songs and as Andra grew as an actor each day, we understood that we couldn’t use those pre-records. So oftentimes she sang live. And I drove the producers crazy because like I said earlier it’s really dangerous singing live because anything can happen and time is money and you never have enough money on a set. So the “Strange Fruit” performance and many other performances are in the moment where you can feel a sense of urgency in her voice. And the songs take a different meaning.
Can you give an example?
She sings a song called “Lover Man” and it’s right after John Levy (played byTone Bell) beats her up. And when she sings it she didn’t realize, and I didn’t realize, when we did the pre-record, what that scene was gonna look like. He beat the shit out of her. He kicked her. So that song then had to take a different meaning. So as she was coming on stage, she had to sing it differently because she was punched in the gut. She was bandaged. Her ribs were broken. Not in real life, but Billie’s ribs were broken. So we had to address and adjust to the truth.
There are moments in the movie where you included montages and old black-and-white film footage. Can you talk about what inspired your directing style for this movie?
Well when you talk about the vision of the film, I’ll start with the fashion. Fashion is really important to me because we don't get that kind of detail. They give us two dollars for most Black movies and say go make a movie and be happy that we’re doing it. And it was really important to me to capture what my family was like, what my grandparents were like. And so it was important to me that you could look at the fabric and see an expensive suit. Not only that, but taking a step further where the palette of set design was accenting the suits just right.
For the transitions, that was just by accident, I just couldn’t afford it. I wanted to show New York in the 50s. So I found footage of New York City to say that we were in the 50s because we couldn’t afford the cars and all the production design. But then I made it part of the fabric of the film so that it didn’t feel cheesy. So I had to put it in throughout the film. The tone of the film is a combination of not having enough money—I don't think there’s enough money to recreate 50s Harlem. Even if I wanted to shoot in Harlem now it wouldn’t look like that.
Where was this film shot?
Montreal. But I did a couple shots in Harlem.
Why was it important for you to focus on Billie’s life after the release of the song?
Because it’s all about “Strange Fruit”! The whole movie is not a biopic. It’s really about the government taking her down. We’re not telling Billie Holiday’s entire story as Lady Sings The Blues did. We're just telling a moment in time of the government hounding her. And this brief love affair that she had with Jimmy (Trevante Rhodes). [Jimmy’s] mother was not accurate in the film, I had to make that up. I don’t even know if [Jimmy] was with [Billie] until the end. I took creative license with that. We knew that they had an affair. We knew that he was in love with her. That was really it. We couldn’t find information on his background, so I made him come from a family that was wealthy because we don’t see Black people wealthy living like that ever. I thought that [his mother] served as a sense of reason talking to her son, and also someone that was a support of Billie.
The film focuses on how far the government went to make Billie pay for speaking up for Black people through that song. The silencing of outspoken Black leaders is not a new thing in this country and these themes feel especially relevant today. Can you talk more about that?
Let me ask you something: If Trump’s government told you that they were going to attack your family if you didn’t stop working for GQ, that they were going to hound you, what would you do? Once you get in their system and the Feds are on you, it is not cute. I don’t know if it were happening to me that I would have the courage to do it. And I think that after watching this story, after hearing what Billie went through and how she stood up to them, it gives me courage to know that if she could do it back then in the 40s and 50s as a Black woman, I owe it to her legacy to do as much as she did.
This movie is also about addiction during a time where it's seen more as a crime than a health concern, and an even bigger crime if you're Black. But now we’re starting to think about drug use differently. How do you feel about the movie being released in this changed climate?
This climate is meant for white people, this climate is meant for opioid addiction. It ain’t meant for people like me that have suffered addictions, the same addictions that are thrown in jail. It became a situation when my people were addicted to drugs. Listen, the same damn thing happened to Judy Garland and they took her to a hospital, the same people.
I wanted to ask you about your own journey toward sobriety. I understand that you have been sober for some time now and you shared recently that this is the first film you've directed while not under the influence. Do you mind talking about that experience?
I do mind talking about it because it's so personal and so painful. I got through it and I had to tell her story. I had to honor Billie Holiday by telling her story sober.
I wish you the best going forward. Let’s switch gears a bit: For the last few years, most of your work has been on television with shows like Empire and Star. How does it feel to return to making movies?
It’s fantastic, fantastic, fantastic! I'm so excited. You know, I forgot I was a filmmaker. You get caught up in so many stories — Cookie and Lucious and then Star. And I forget that I’m a filmmaker truly. It’s been seven or eight years since I wrapped The Butler, so it was exciting to actually go back. And it was scary to go back, especially sober.
In 2019 you said Star was going to return as a two hour-long movie. Is that still the plan? Is Covid causing a delay?
That is the plan. If I can ever get everybody together and I wish they would stop beating me up on social media for it, but it’s so great. I didn't know we had so many fans, man. I forgot how ahead of the times that this show was, all through music. I announced we were going to make the movie and now it's really hard because it's about getting everybody's schedules together and everybody's working.
Back to Billie Holiday. What do think about viewers who may feel like this complicated portrayal of the jazz singer focuses too much on the hard parts of her life and not on her legacy as “Lady Day”?
I think that we do a better job than my favorite movie, Lady Sings The Blues, which focuses strictly on her addiction. We talk about her being a civil rights leader here. You walk away and you know she was fighting for us. And that’s the beauty of who we are as people. Some people will think, “well why did he depict her as a drug addict?” Maybe because she was? How do you tell a story about a drug addict without talking about the drugs? You have to tell the truth and I think that when you walk into my world of storytelling you will get it. No chaser.
There’s a moment earlier in the film where Billie is asked what it's like to be a colored woman. What about her are you hoping resonates with viewers?
That she was an undeniable force of nature, that will live on forever and is a role model to all.
Originally Appeared on GQ