For the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the story of Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer, got here to her in dribs and drabs. When Parks was rising up, she mentioned, “our parents would tell us, ‘She had a tragic story.’ And then, as we got a little older, ‘She used drugs.’ And then as we got a little older, my mom would start saying things like, you know, they got to her. But she didn’t really get into it.”
In the forthcoming drama “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Parks, who wrote the screenplay, actually will get into it, inserting lots of Holiday’s better-known battles — with heroin dependancy, Jim Crow-era racism, and a seemingly limitless string of swindlers and cads — within the context of her lesser-known struggles with Harry J. Anslinger, the unabashedly racist head of the now-defunct Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
“The story is about how this woman, this icon, was much too outspoken, and so the government came after her,” Parks mentioned in a telephone interview. “It’s about how we African-American folks love this country that doesn’t really love us back.”
Directed by Lee Daniels, the movie reveals how Anslinger doggedly pursued Holiday (performed by the Grammy-nominated vocalist Andra Day) ostensibly for her drug use, however often because she refused to cease singing “Strange Fruit,” the haunting and visceral anti-lynching anthem that has turn out to be one of the vital well-known protest songs of all time.
The function, Day admitted, was daunting. Holiday was one of many world’s most gifted and celebrated jazz singers, her songs later coated by artists like John Coltrane, Barbra Streisand and Nina Simone, her affect felt by singers from Frank Sinatra to Cassandra Wilson to Day herself. And then there have been all of the others who had tackled the function earlier than her. “I just had this idea running in my head that people would be like: ‘Billie Holiday’s so amazing, Diana Ross was amazing, Audra McDonald was amazing,’” Day mentioned in a video name. “‘Oh, and then remember that girl, Andra Day, who tried to play Billie?’”
Premiering on Hulu on Feb. 26, the biopic is the most recent in a collection of portrayals of Lady Day and her music that date again a long time. Day’s Golden Globe-nominated efficiency follows Ross’s star flip within the 1972 function “Lady Sings the Blues” and McDonald’s Tony-winning performances within the Broadway musical “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” In addition, there have been biographies (“Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon”), kids’s books (“Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her”), and documentaries (“The Long Night of Lady Day”; “Billie”). Over the years, portrayals of Holiday have turn out to be extra nuanced, shifting focus away from her issues with dependancy to incorporate insights into her historical past and legacy as a musician, a pioneering Black feminine entertainer and, with “Strange Fruit,” a champion of civil rights.
Looming over all of them is “Lady Sings the Blues,” Holiday’s 1956 ghostwritten autobiography, which omitted many particulars of her life (the singer’s affairs with Orson Welles and Tallulah Bankhead) and fictionalized others (her fatherland; the marital standing of her mother and father).
The guide shaped the premise for the 1972 biopic, a movie that, coincidentally, impressed Daniels to turn out to be a director. (His credit embody “The Butler” and “Precious.”) “‘Lady Sings the Blues’ changed my life,” he mentioned in a telephone interview. “It was beautiful Black people. It was Diana Ross at the height of her everything. It was Black excellence mixed in with a little bit of pig’s feet and pineapple soda and cornbread. It was magic. I had never been so entranced by anything.”
The musical “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” imagines a single set — however what a set! — throughout which the singer goes off the rails in a small nightspot in Philadelphia, the location of her earlier arrest on drug expenses. (“When I die,” she cracks, “I don’t care if I go to heaven or hell, as long as it ain’t in Philly.”) Holiday rails towards the dangerous males in her life, together with her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, and the nameless attacker who raped her when she was a toddler.
Since that musical’s premiere in 1986, a bunch of would-be Lady Days have tackled the demanding function in theaters throughout the nation, together with Lonette McKee and Ernestine Jackson. In 2014, McDonald’s rendition received the actress a record-breaking sixth Tony.
To deliver the icon to life in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Parks learn all the things she might concerning the singer and immersed herself in her music. She reread “Lady Sings the Blues” however didn’t revisit the film. (“Lee loves that film, so I was like, I’m going to let him have that.”) She additionally learn a number of books by Anslinger, Holiday’s longtime nemesis (performed by Garrett Hedlund within the movie), who declared that jazz “sounded like the jungle in the dead of night” and declared that the lives of its gamers “reek of filth.”
“Anslinger was fascinated with what he called the ‘jazz type,’ and saw himself as making America great again,” Parks mentioned.
Parks additionally studied up on Jimmy Fletcher, the Black narcotics agent whom Anslinger enlisted to assist deliver Holiday down. “That’s the situation we’re in as Black America right now,” Parks mentioned. “Want to prove you’re not really Black? Put down some Black people. That’s the way to climb the ladder in the entertainment business. I’m not going to name any names! But you still see it.”
In addition to Fletcher and Anslinger, a complete roster of dangerous males enter Holiday’s life, together with the mob enforcer Louis McKay, the singer’s third husband. In the 1972 “Lady Sings the Blues,” McKay, as performed by Billy Dee Williams, is Holiday’s super-suave, would-be savior, who struggles mightily (and fails) to get the singer off medicine. (The actual McKay served as that film’s technical adviser.) In actuality — and in Daniels’s movie — McKay was a pimp, a junkie and a spouse beater.
“The same woman who was so strong, who could see so clearly the injustices in our culture, just kept hooking up with the wrong guy,” Parks mentioned. “But I guess that’s how it always is. Great people do great things, but then at home, they’re like —” and right here the author screamed.
Even so, the singer who emerges in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is extra fighter than sufferer, taking up Anslinger (close to the tip of the movie, she tells him, “Your grandkids are going to be singing ‘Strange Fruit’”) and holding her personal towards Fletcher.
“You get to see her as human,” Day mentioned. “As Black women, we’re not supposed to show the ugly parts or the mistakes. Billie’s funny, she has this great magnetism, she can be crazy and self-destructive. But she can also stand up and be a pillar of strength when forces that are so much greater than her are trying to destroy her.”
James Erskine, the director of the recent documentary “Billie,” additionally needed to maneuver past the usual narratives of Holiday as sufferer. “I was really keen to show that she lived life,” he mentioned. “There’s a sequence where she’s on 42nd Street and she’s having lots of sex and taking lots of drugs, and I really wanted that to feel very positive, that she was determining her own destiny.”
Erskine’s movie drew from 200 hours of audio interviews performed by the journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl within the 1970s. Many of the feedback haven’t aged effectively: One psychiatrist declares Holiday a psychopath; others attribute her beatings by assorted males to masochism.
The documentary additionally contains commentary about Holiday’s deep and platonic love for the saxophonist Lester Young, her unfulfilled need to have kids, and her sold-out 1948 live performance at Carnegie Hall, following her stint in a federal jail in West Virginia.
“The perception from ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ is very much Billie as victim and junkie, but I think that while she was victimized by people, she was really a fighter,” Erskine mentioned. “And she was also a great artist, of course, which is why we’re still talking about her long after she died.”
For Daniels, Holiday’s story will all the time be related. “It’s America’s story,” he mentioned. “And until we’re healing, until American has healed, it’s not going to not be relevant.”
In Parks’s view, “She was a soldier. Just the fact that she kept singing ‘Strange Fruit’! She was a soldier of the first order. Those mink coats and diamonds that she wore were her armor, and her voice was her sword.”