"It's a Call to Arms, This Movie": THR Presents Q&A With Lee Daniels and Cast of 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

The film reveals a little-seen side of Holiday as a figure whose insistence on performing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” amid political pressures made her a pioneer of the civil rights movement. 

For director Lee Daniels and the cast of his new film, The United States vs Billie Holiday, Billie Holiday was a public figure with whom they felt a personal connection, like "one of my aunties," Daniels said of the jazz singer.

But the film, which will premiere on Hulu Feb. 26, reveals a little-seen side of Holiday as a figure whose insistence on performing the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" amid political pressures made her a pioneer of the civil rights movement.

“This isn’t a biopic,” Daniels told THR's Rebecca Keegan during The Hollywood Reporter Presents Q&A powered by Vision Media. The conversation also featured Andra Day, who stars as Holiday in the film; Empire’s Miss Lawrence, who plays Holiday’s stylist and friend, Miss Freddy; and Diana Ross' son, actor Evan Ross, who plays federal agent Sam Williams. "It’s a moment of time of the government tracking her down. I had no idea that she was the trailblazer that she was, and I fashion myself pretty smart with Black history."

Playwright and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks adapted The United States vs Billie Holiday from Johan Hari’s 2015 book about the war on drugs, Chasing the Scream, and the film depicts the U.S. government’s pursuit of Holiday for her heroin use in the context of the FBI’s efforts to suppress her performance of "Strange Fruit," which the government feared would galvanize the anger of Black Americans.

The role marks Day’s first major acting performance, and she was initially reluctant to take the job out of a sense of responsibility to Holiday. “I didn’t want to be a stain on Billie Holiday’s legacy,” Day said. For Day, Holiday was “the woman that helped me to own my voice, to make sure that whatever it is that I’m creating affects people, that it’s intentional.”

To get inside Holiday’s skin, Day made some major lifestyle changes. “It took me forever to get improper,” Day said. “I did start smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and being more sexual.”

Daniels filled the cast with characters who reflected the eclectic worlds Day traveled in, including Natasha Lyonne as lover Tallulah Bankhead, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as a close friend and Miss Lawrence as a gender-bending stylist who wears some of Holiday’s clothes, “You didn’t get to see a lot of those types of people in that era,” said Miss Lawrence. “People like Miss Freddy have been around for years, going back to slavery. It’s dreamy to see Miss Freddy come to life in this movie.”

Ross, who has since childhood associated Billie Holiday with his mother’s groundbreaking performance as the singer in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, plays a character pursing Holiday for the U.S. government, a role that he says is about “wanting to do the right thing but knowing you can’t in the circumstance.”

Parks wrote the movie on the heels of President Trump’s election in 2016, but its themes of anti-racist defiance found new currency in the weeks before its release, when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. “It’s a call to arms, this movie,” Daniels said. “I’m embarrassed to say that it’s timely, but it was timely 20 years ago and it will be timely 20 years from now, based on the noose that was up there at the Capitol.”

Though the movie reframes Holiday as a civil rights heroine, it’s an image the singer might not recognize, Daniels said. “She didn’t see herself as an activist,” he said. “She was just doing the right thing.”