There have been several portrayals of the incomparable Billie Holiday on-screen. Most notably, Diana Ross’ 1972 depiction in Lady Sings the Blues. Yet there have been none as visceral as Andra Day’s portrayal of the haunted but regal jazz singer — right down to those jaw-dropping vocals. Day’s outstanding performance sits at the center of Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday, leaving the audience with a stunning snapshot of an iconic life. More than a film about a woman whose voice defined a generation, Daniels offers a new interpretation of Lady Day, as a woman so powerful that the government directly targeted her, and of a songwriter whose stunning song, “Strange Fruit” helped ignite a movement.
Ahead of The United States vs. Billie Holiday‘s debut on Hulu, Shadow and Act spoke with Daniels, Day, and the rest of the cast, including Trevante Rhodes, Tyler James Williams, Miss Lawrence, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Garrett Hedlund and Evan Ross
The Academy Award-nominated director spoke about being called to tell Ms. Holiday’s story and why Day, despite her trepidation was the only actor who could do her justice.
“I saw Lady Sings the Blues, and it was incredible, but it was Lady Sings the Blues. How can you repeat that?” Daniels said. “It wasn’t until recently, in 2017, when I read Suzan-Lori Parks’ script. I was a 58-year-old-man then, that I learned about ‘Strange Fruit’ and the government. I consider myself pretty smart when it comes to my Black history, but I didn’t know that. If I didn’t know it, I know a lot of y’all didn’t know it, so I knew then it was important to tell that story.”
Though Daniels knew Day could take the role, the singer was petrified when he approached her. “I didn’t want to be terrible,” Day said. “That’s as simple as I can put it. I was not an actress, and it was uncharted territory for me. Then I was such a big fan of Billie Holiday, so I didn’t want to mess up her legacy or be a blot on it in any way. I love Lady Sings the Blues, so I felt the same thing that Lee felt, ‘Why would we remake that movie? It’s so amazing.’ So there were huge reasons and obstacles. But then, just through a lot of prayer and communication, there was a desire to authentically tell Billie’s story and to authenticate her legacy so that the world could know her as the Godmother of Civil Rights, which she truly is. We just took a leap of faith. We jumped into this together, and I’m still very, very happy that we did.
Watch the full interview below with the entire cast.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday debuts Feb. 26, 2021, on Hulu.