Pop Culture

Lee Daniels on Dramatizing Billie Holiday’s Battle With the US Government: “I Owed It to Her Legacy”

Lee Daniels felt a sense of urgency to direct and produce The United States vs. Billie Holiday after reading the script (and the Johann Hari book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, that it was based on) a few years ago. Before that, he didn’t really know that legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday was aggressively targeted by the U.S. government with drug charges for years until her death.

“I didn’t understand I could be a black man in my mid-50s and not understand that this story wasn’t [being told],” Daniels, 61, said. “You know, I take pride in knowing my black history. So then I started thinking I had to tell the story.”

The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which premieres on February 26 on Hulu, explores the tumultuous life of the singer, played by Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day, following the release of her controversial and emotional ballad, “Strange Fruit,” which drew attention from the FBI after it became a protest cry against the lynching of Black people in the United States (the script was written by Susan Lori Parks, the first African- American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama). The federal government worked for years to keep Holiday from performing the song, using her drug addiction to arrest and prosecute her. Out of defiance, Holiday sang it anyways. 

Lee chatted with GQ earlier this month about what motivated him to make this movie, his excitement over returning to film directing, and Holiday’s complex life. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Hulu / Takashi Seida

Where are you right now? Did you have a good Valentine’s Day?

I’m in LA. It was fantastic. I brought some candy for my partner and then I kept eating it. Why do we feel guilty eating chocolate? I forgot what it tastes like, I went crazy.

I was reading recently that you started fasting during the pandemic?

Yes and even prior to that I had taken chocolate out of my diet, that was a given. Girl, I went in on the chocolate and I ain’t look back. It was a place called Edelweiss. And it is off the chain in Beverly Hills, I mean off the chain.

When did you first discover Billie Holiday’s music? Did you grow up as a big fan?

No, I didn’t grow up as a big fan, I didn’t know her work. I knew her because of Lady Sings The Blues as a kid. I watched that movie as a kid in the theater and it really blew my mind. I just had never seen black people look so beautiful. And the music was incredible and the story was a great love story. Then I discovered Billie Holiday’s music in my late 30s/40s.

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