Ahead of its Hulu release on Feb. 26, the virtual premiere of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” espoused the film’s mission to authenticate Holiday’s real-life story.
“As part of Black History Month, it is important to correct Black history,” ABC News anchor Linsey Davis said during the film’s introduction. “This is a story we need to get right and the filmmakers and cast do just that.”
Reps. Maxine Waters and Bobby Rush followed Davis with remarks about Holiday’s cultural, political and social impact. Lee Daniels’ film highlights the government’s targeting of Holiday, played by Andra Day, and presents the jazz icon as a trailblazer.
“Many people have heard about her elegance, her music and her incredible talent, but many do not really know the kind of life Billie Holiday lived that was rooted in perseverance and courage,” Waters said.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” pinpoints Congress’ ongoing lag to pass an anti-lynching bill, just as it failed to do so in the 1930s. Rush further explained that Congress has the responsibility to address “our nation’s vicious history of racially-motivated violence.”
“The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and far too many others are a reminder we are still afflicted by the scourge of modern day lynching,” he said. “The time to act is now.”
The premiere also featured conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Kerry Washington, Tom Ford, Laverne Cox, Gabourey Sidibe, Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle. The cast and crew provided insight about production and their performances, and opened up about spotlighting Holiday’s story just as the country transitions out of, as Daniels puts it, the previous presidential administration’s “cloud.”
In a discussion with Winfrey, screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks recalled listening to Holiday’s records with her parents while growing up. Parks said that her mom would say, “They got to her, you know” in regards to Holiday, but it wasn’t until she got older that Parks realized what her mom was implying.
“It was a war on Black excellence,” she said. “That’s the truth that’s ready to be heard in this country, I hope.”
Daniels described filming as one of the most difficult shoots of his career. Still, he knew it was imperative for the world to understand that Holiday kicked off the civil rights movement. “Strange Fruit” is a seminal protest anthem in American history, and the film pays its artist her due.
“Taking [Billie’s] great empathy and that great strength and using that as the sort of springboard for how we move forward in our activism and in the cause and in the fight and progressing things forward— I think those are integral elements to how we fight,” Day said.