When Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels was just 13 years old, he watched a film that left an indelible mark on his journey to becoming a filmmaker. That film was Lady Sings the Blues, the Oscar-nominated biopic that starred Diana Ross as the legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday.
“That [film] really messed with my head because they were beautiful people [who] looked like I looked on the big screen,” the United States vs. Billie Holiday director tells Observer in a Zoom interview last month. “It was mesmerizing to watch Black people in love, and I’d never seen two people kiss on screen before or just the humor that Richard Pryor had.
“It was the story that Black people needed, that the culture needed at the time, because we needed a love story. It was beautiful, and I think that that movie made me want to become a director.”
Nearly five decades after the 1972 release of that film, Daniels received a screenplay for a new Holiday biopic that was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and was based on a chapter of Johann Hari’s best-selling book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. It was in the pages of those works that Daniels came to realize that his rose-colored, initial impression of the jazz artist masked the ugly truth of a targeted government takedown.
“There was no way that I could not hire her. [Andra Day] is a special woman.” –Lee Daniels
Holiday, who died of cirrhosis in 1959 at the age of 44, is often described as “an iconic jazz singer and drug addict” in the same breath. During the last two decades of her life, she famously performed “Strange Fruit,” a song protesting the lynching of Black people, making her one of the first outspoken leaders of the Civil Rights movement.
Holiday’s addiction was a focal point for Harry J. Anslinger, who was the lead architect of the infamous “War on Drugs” in the 20th century. As the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger, who served under five U.S. presidents, had a history of targeting renowned jazz musicians for marijuana use. One of those musicians was Holiday, whom he tried to bully into not singing “Strange Fruit” by going after her drug and alcohol use.
After watching Lady Sings the Blues for the first time, Daniels recalls, “I went a little further in getting [into] Billie Holiday’s music, and it wasn’t like Diana Ross’ music at all, who was interpreting her. I actually didn’t like it, so I put it down. And some 30 years later, I started listening to her music again. It’s an acquired taste, and then, I became obsessed with her music.
“I listened to the lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit’ and I had a new understanding of Billie Holiday. Just those words were so powerful. She just spoke to me; that story spoke to me. The story of the unsung hero, the underdog. The fact that she was a Civil Rights leader and didn’t get the credit for it. I get chills now just thinking about it.”
After signing on to direct The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which has been described as “the true story of Billie Holiday’s life,” Daniels knew that he had his work cut out for him to find the right actress to embody the late singer. Many of his friends and fellow collaborators immediately urged him to meet with Grammy-nominated artist Andra Day, who had performed her own rendition of “Strange Fruit.”
Daniels initially refused to meet Day, citing her lack of experience as an actor; Day, herself, did not even think that she would be capable of portraying one of her all-time artistic heroes. The pair eventually met at the Soho House in West Hollywood, where they connected over a shared fear of this project and a desire to honor Holiday’s legacy.
“We fell in love when we met each other, and it was love at first sight,” Daniels says of his first meeting with Day, who has now won a Golden Globe and earned an Academy Award nomination for her acting debut. “I sent her off to an acting coach [Tasha Smith] and a vocal coach [Thom Jones], and she delivered. There was no way that I could not hire her. She is a special woman. I don’t know that I’ve ever witnessed anything like that in my career; I’ve never seen a transformation or performance like that in my career.”
While the biopic chronicles Holiday’s rise as a prominent singer in New York City’s nightlife and her heartbreaking descent into drug addiction, it is largely driven by Anslinger (portrayed by Troy’s Garrett Hedlund) and the U.S. government’s ruthless takedown of the late jazz singer. In addition to preventing Holiday from obtaining a Cabaret card, which was required to perform in nightclubs, Anslinger hired a Black federal agent named Jimmy Fletcher (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes) to infiltrate Holiday’s inner circle. What he didn’t anticipate, however, was that Fletcher would end up falling in love with Holiday, which becomes the other major storyline in the film.
For Rhodes, who grew up listening to Holiday’s music in the South, this film—his “ beautiful passion project”—gave him the perfect opportunity to collaborate with Daniels for the first time and to build another complicated character “from the ground up.”
“There was one book that was birthed from a person who interviewed all of the people who were prevalent in Billie’s life, [but] the fact that we didn’t have so much information on him was so freeing to me,” Rhodes says, later explaining that Fletcher, unlike Holiday, was a person who was born into a lot of privilege. “I had the opportunity to read a few books—obviously the book that the film was birthed from, but a couple of other books as well—in which I saw three pages that had some really incredible dialogue. That gifted me the perspective of his outlook on the world and, really, his ego in a sense.”
While Daniels describes Day’s entire transformation as “God-like,” Rhodes recalls one of the first times that he saw his transformed co-star in all of her glory. “When we got to dinner that one time and I saw her walk in as Billie, she was Billie. As an actor, as a creative, as a performer, when you have someone who is your number one and who is that focused and that into what we have to do, that’s everything you need,” he says.
“If Billie Holiday could do what she did back then, if she could stand up to the U.S. government and make change that many years ago, the least we can do in 2021 is to stand up.” –Lee Daniels
“I think we just had a natural understanding and a natural chemistry that we were able to tap into with these characters,” Rhodes adds, describing the explosive on-screen chemistry that he shared with Day during her transformation. “I think it was just being open, being present and being emotionally available in the space, and I think people are reacting to that and are more appreciative for it.”
Throughout the film, Holiday and Fletcher share some incredibly intense scenes, starting with a raucous and uninhibited sex scene at the start of their romantic relationship and ending with an emotionally fraught scene with an ailing Holiday on her deathbed. But it is a dizzying four-minute sequence in the middle of the film, where Holiday transitions from getting off a bus to witnessing her first lynching to singing “Strange Fruit” in front of a silent crowd, that will likely serve as one of the most haunting scenes of the year.
“I understand what it’s like to be on a football team because it was really like team sports,” Daniels says, noting that the lynching sequence was shot in one take. “It was the most difficult shot [that] I’ve ever shot before because everybody had to be on point, including the children that were crying. That had to work with the leaves that happened to be blowing in front of us as we were shooting it. Then, the cross and making sure that the cross was lit at the same time and that the woman hanging was hanging right at the same time.
“Every actor was in their place from the time that Billie got off of the bus to the time that she went up on the stage [after going] through that cottage that she walked through—that labyrinth, that maze of utter frustration and pain. It was hard. It was like walking a tightrope because if you made her too vulnerable or too strong or too nasty or too drunk or too high, it would have failed. So, it was really the perfect balance and Andra delivers that with precision. It was a very emotional moment for all of the actors too.”
“She was Billie. As an actor, as a creative, as a performer, when you have someone who is your number one and who is that focused and that into what we have to do, that’s everything you need.” –Trevante Rhodes
For Rhodes, who is also a former standout athlete, the technical and emotional aspects of the sequence were particularly challenging to film for different reasons. “Having that team aspect of the crew and the cast and having to all be on the same wavelength to execute this scene—it was just cool because all we needed was one person to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and we’d lose that whole take,” he explains.
“Then, to speak on the emotional aspect of that scene, it’s hard to go into that because I’m a Black man in America. I grew up in the South, so that essence, that feeling, that smell of whatever that sensation is, that’s something that I know all too well. Just being able to express myself in that way for people to receive it in whatever way they can, it was refreshing and really life-affirming.”
After a year that has seen a significant number of Black history films amid renewed calls for racial justice across the country, Daniels and Rhodes both want to make one thing clear: The hard work has only just begun.
“I think we’ve always been doing it, but understanding the structure of the power is understanding [that] this is what it is,” Rhodes says. “Nobody gives up their position [because] they’re comfortable where they are. That’s how America was birthed, so to change America, it takes more than just a few years, and we’ve only been at this for 100 years.”
“We have the power to do the work; we have the power to change the future,” Daniels says. “It will not be accomplished in our lifetime—I know not—but I do believe that if we are doing the work and we are addressing it, if we are teaching our children and our children’s children are teaching their children, I think change will come for sure.
“If Billie Holiday could do what she did back then, if she could stand up to the U.S. government and make change that many years ago, the least we can do in 2021 is to stand up and to do our part in making change.”
Golden Years is Observer’s clear-eyed coverage of the awards horserace.