United States vs. Billie Holiday: Andra Day Shines in Lee Daniels Film

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is director Lee Daniels first feature since the 2013 The Butler, which was both a critical and commercial hit. Though he has made only  few films, such as the 2009 Oscar-winning Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, each has left a mark on Hollywood and pop culture.  Over the past eight years, he’s been the co-creator, producer, director, and writer of the smash TV series Empire.
Andra Day in 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday.'
Andra Day in ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday.’
Originally, the United States was set up at Paramount, but in December the studio sold the rights to Hulu, which will release it on February 26.
Daniels has been wanting to make a film about the legendary singer for decades, and when he read the screenplay by novelist Suzan-Lori Parks, based on Johann Hari’s book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” he was convinced the time was right.
The United States is not the first feature about the iconic singer. Viewers may recall the biopic, Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross. For Lee, that 1972 movie was a cultural signifier and a life-changing experience: “What prompted me to become a filmmaker was Lady Sings the Blues, which I saw in a Philadelphia theater when I was thirteen. I had never seen a Black couple in love. I don’t think America had seen a Black couple in love, and Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams were so beautiful. I loved the Harlem setting, the fashion, the music. I could smell the fried chicken jumping off the screen.  I knew right away that I wanted to make people feel the way I felt then.”
He’s quick to point out that Lady Sings the Blues was a biopic, “whereas our movie has a more focused narrative with a specific point of view, centering on how the government targeted Holiday for her music’s  political undercurrents.” The movie spans the era from her singing the controversial ballad, “Strange Fruit,” in 1939, up to her death, in 1959, age 44.  He admits that back in 1972, “Black Americans needed to see a black couple in love, and so the filmmakers didn’t feel urgency to tell Holiday’s actual story, the highs and lows, the glory and suffering.”
As for casting the lead with Andra Day, he recalls: “My manager, my agent, my partner, were telling me I should meet her because she sings like Billie. But I don’t like taking direction from anybody, so I took my time. Several famous actresses auditioned, and finally, I went to the Soho House in Hollywood and met Andra, whereupon I immediately understood what everybody was talking about.”
Daniels sent Andra to an acting coach, and the coach, unbeknownst to her, showed him a video-tape of her getting into character: “Seeing it, I realized that I had never witnessed anything like it.  Like Precious (for which Mo’Nique won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), I do well with first-time actors, because they trust me.”
He elaborates: “Andra, a Grammy nominated singer, had never acted before, but she trusted me. If I told her to jump off a cliff, she would have; she was there to please me blindly. Trust means being on the same page with your performers, because directing is almost like making love with them. You don’t have to use words, just your eyes, and when you’re in synch with your actors, real magic happens.”
Daniels thinks that Holiday’s role in the Civil Rights movement is underestimated:  “When people talk of Civil Rights leaders, they think of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, but they don’t think of women.  Unfortunately, Billie’s public image was defined by being a troubled singer and drug addict. But for me, leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Billie was a product of the ghetto, brought up in a brothel, and because of her painful childhood she became a drug addict.
Holiday’s courage inspired him in other ways: “It made me fearless, to not take ‘no’ as an answer, to making sure my movies got made.”  Every studio in town passed on the film, because they didn’t want to see a movie about Billie. For Lee, it was deja vu, like his experiences with Precious and The Butler.  He explains: “I first started working for a studio with Empire, but the execs didn’t really want to hear my viewpoint, or understand the way I see the world. The studios are not interested in authentic black stories, they want tales that are easily palatable for white Americans.”
When he directed his movie, the George Floyd tragedy hadn’t happened yet. But when people are now telling Daniels that his movie is timely, he replies: “It’s timely now, as it was timely 20 years ago, and it will be timely 20 years from now, because America is not going to change any time soon. This election showed us exactly where black people stand in a divided America, it’s not much different than what it was at the Civil War.”
He holds that Billie needs to be celebrated for many several reasons: “To be a woman, to be a black woman, and to stand up to the government is incredible. I’m not sure that I would have had the balls to do it. I don’t know that I am man enough to do what she did.”
Trevante Rhodes, who appeared in Moonlight, plays Jimmy Fletcher, a black FBI agent: “The government couldn’t take her down because she was singing “Strange Fruit”–it was freedom of speech. But they could take her down for drugs, and since they couldn’t get white men to infiltrate Harlem, Hoover hired the first black FBI agent. But, ironically, when Fletcher finds out what Billie’s really about, he falls in love with her. So my movie is in essence a love story that remarkably is all true.”
Lee also deals with the sexuality of Holiday, who’s always been an icon in the LGBTQ community: “She was lovers with actress Tallulah Bankhead (played by Natasha Leone). Billie had many lovers, black and white, males and females. She didn’t care about labels–that she was a drug addict or lesbian or bisexual. We hit it from the perspective of a woman who simply didn’t care what people thought about her.”
“In our movie, Billie talks about addiction, getting better by going to one of those fancy rehab places, like Judy Garland. But the government treated Judy so much better than Billie. With Judy they put her away and took care of her, but with Billie, they just wanted to throw her into jail.”
“I am from a specific generation that was conditioned by women like Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind and other women who are now looked down upon. But they are the people and spirits I still connect to.  I come from a generation where if I believed that people were racist when I was 20, I don’t know that I’d be here. I put blinders on, because I never wanted to see it. All I knew is that I was going to be on my best behavior in front of white America so that I could succeed.”
Lee says that he trust his two children: “My 25-year-old kids tell me whether I’m in the right place. I’m old now (he’s 61), and I’m disconnected to this movement, this ‘Woke’ generation of activists out in the streets. But my kids now say, ‘No, Dad. You’ve got to react to the atrocities. But if I looked at the atrocities 20 years ago, I’m not sure I would have left the ghetto; I would probably be there right now.”
“We are at a place I never thought I’d see, and that’s what our movie is about, calling not just my black brothers to arms but my white comrades too. To have 70 million people voting for Trump is like 70 million voting for Hitler, and I think it’s urgent now to address racial issues. When I was directing, I could smell in the air Floyd’s neck incident, and the craziness in the streets. It was a matter of time, and that’s what prompted me to do the film.”
The government had much stronger impact back then: “The Federal Bureau of Narcotics had her picture in their museum as a shining example of how the agency works. At the end of my film, I show John F. Kennedy giving the bad guy in our film, Harry Anslinger, an award for great services in the drug industry.”
“The government really put a spin on it, claiming that Billie was a bad person, because they didn’t want her to sing about black people getting lynched. They did everything in their power to stop her, including planting drugs on her when she was trying to stop, and they handcuffed her to her bed when she was dying.”
Billie was sometimes booed off the Apollo theater stage because she didn’t meet black audiences’ expectations: “She was often asked, ‘why can’t you be like Ella Fitzgerald, or Marion Anderson, or Dorothy Dandridge, why can’t you represent us more properly?  Billie really wanted to please her black audience, but it’s white people that embraced her and pushed her into fame. What’s great about our story is that it shows that white people wanted her, even though the government was against her.”
Daniels claims that, initially, he didn’t grasp Billie’s voice: “When I saw Lady Sings the Blues, I became obsessed with Diana Ross’s voice and interpretation. But when I really listened to Billie’s voice, I said, ‘this is like a great whiskey, great scotch.’  I understood that her singing came from an honest place of being right in the moment. There are few singers like her–Judy Garland came close–who can express themselves vocally, and be in the moment.”
A product of his socialization, he claims: “I was taught by my mother to respect white people, to be nice and courteous–keep your head low down. This is a generational thing, and it’s deeply ingrained in the fabric of America, because racism is what America is about. In the past, I’ve chosen to ignore that, but now, I’m really looking at it straight in the eye and stop being embarrassed about talking the truth.”
Daniels holds that “the more we talk about it, the faster we’ll heal ourselves. I don’t want to look at someone and say, ‘you hate me because I’m black,’ it’s stupid, it doesn’t make sense. But we have to address this issue, which I’ve been doing with all my work, and specifically with this one, which comes from deep in my heart.”