'United States vs. Billie Holiday' Writer on How the Singer Was Targeted by the Government

United-States-v.-Billie-Holiday-and-inset-of Suzan-Lori Parks
Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP; Courtesy of Takashi Seida/Paramount Pictures

Andra Day as Holiday (Inset: Suzan-Lori Parks)

Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks' script follows the unlikely romance between the jazz giant and the federal agent assigned to nab her on a drugs charge during a sting operation.

Among the country's preeminent dramatists, Suzan-Lori Parks has won a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog-Underdog and a 2012 Tony for an adaptation of Porgy and Bess. Along the way Parks, 57, has dipped a toe in Hollywood, as far back as 1996's Girl 6, which she wrote for Spike Lee. In recent years, she's ramped up her screenwriting efforts — first with Native Son, the 2019 film adaptation of Richard Wright's landmark 1940 novel, and next with The United States vs. Billie Holiday (out Feb. 26 on Hulu). The biopic, with Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day in the title role, follows the unlikely romance between the jazz giant and Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the federal agent assigned to nab her on a drugs charge during a sting operation. Parks spoke to THR about the art of conjuring a legend on the blank page.

You have written for stage, TV and film over the years. How do you choose?

I tell people it's like the difference between corduroy and velvet. A film just feels differently than a play does. And right away I saw this as a film. And they both feel differently from a limited series, for example, because I'm also working on Genius: Aretha right now [for National Geographic, starring Cynthia Erivo].

I remember seeing some of your early plays in New York. They were very experimental with narrative and language. Does working in Hollywood rein in some of those creative impulses?

It's funny — I've grown since then. The '90s were a while ago. With every project I tell truth. I feel no more hemmed in or constrained by film than — look, I'm married and I'm a parent now. Is that hemming me in? Does monogamy hem one in? Well maybe, but it gives me a chance to flower in a whole new way. And that's what film is allowing me to do. A real artist, when she goes into a different genre, a different medium, a different kind of art making, a different kind of truth telling, is acting of herself to flower in a whole new way.

Has telling a Billie Holiday story been something you've always wanted to do?

Billie is such an iconic figure. When [producers] Mark Bomback and Jeff Kirschenbaum brought the project to me, I could see it right away. I could see this love affair that she has with Jimmy Fletcher, because it tells the story of the love affair that Black Americans have with America. [It's about a] Black American woman living in America who's been in love with her country her whole life. Black Americans love this country, often at our peril.

In the film she poses a threat to the U.S. government over the song "Strange Fruit." Who found that song threatening?

I think lots of people found that song threatening. Me and my husband have a son in fourth grade. I sat with him today and watched how Martin Luther King got arrested in Birmingham in '63. I said, "What's he doing when he got arrested?" And our son said, "He's walking down the street." This is a 9-year-old who had just seen the storming of the Capitol, the Trump rioters. And King got arrested for what? "Walking down the street." The powers that be can call anything threatening, and conversely they can call anything nonthreatening. It depends on who is doing it.

There were plenty of jazz musicians doing all sorts of things back then. But because Billie Holiday, a Black American woman, was singing about lynching, the feeling among the powers that be — [FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover, [Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry J.] Anslinger and others — is that if the song gets airplay, folks might get up in arms, folks might start to protest. It might be a wake-up call for people. We've got to keep that suppression, we've got to keep the lid on this. We've got to come down hard on the woman who is defying us. How we can do that? Well, she has a drug problem. Let's go after that.

Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" is not unlike Colin Kaepernick taking a knee. It hurts no one, but it upsets a lot of people.

Yes, and a Trumpster who rioted in the Capitol would point to Kaepernick and say, "He's disrespecting a flag." Meanwhile, Trumpsters are breaking windows and threatening people and hitting a cop with a fire extinguisher, who then dies. But Colin Kaepernick by taking a knee during the football game is disrespecting the flag. That's exactly what we're talking about. In Billie's case, they made sure she shut up. The thing is, they couldn't do it alone. Her friends had to give her up like Jesus' friend gave him up. Her husband gave her up. So that's how they got to her — and let us remember that, too. Sometimes the weakest links are sometimes right in the community. Who killed Malcolm X? Who pulled the trigger? We need to wake up to that.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.