Lee Daniels and Andra Day take on Billie Holiday’s legacy in new Hulu film

New York News
NEW YORK — More than six decades have passed since legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday died virtually penniless in Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem, and it’s been almost half a century since Diana Ross earned an Academy Award nomination for portraying her in “Lady Sings the Blues.”

Now, there’s Oscar buzz for “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” now streaming on Hulu.

The new movie doesn’t ignore her drug and alcohol addiction, nor does it overlook her colorful and controversial romantic life. It is, however, focused on a larger narrative.

The movie looks at how she used her voice and her music to push the envelope, and many of those performances happened at Carnegie Hall.

Holiday has been locked inside her own legend for more than 60 years, defined as a tragic figure. But there’s more to her story we all should know, says the woman who plays her so convincingly.

“I’m a huge fan of hers, and this idea that she would go down in history as this tragic drug addict who was troubled has always pained me,” star Andra Day said.

Day is a singer who’s a longtime admirer of the icon known as “Lady Day, but she was reluctant to play her at first.

“In my mind at the time, it was, ‘I’m not an actress. This is a terrible idea, and now I’m gonna be this horrible stain on Billie Holiday’s legacy,'” she said.

She also didn’t want to remake “Lady Sings the Blues.”

“I just thought Diana was just terrific, her performance, Billie Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, it was just an amazing movie and an amazing performance,” Day said.

Director Lee Daniels wasn’t sure either, but you will find it hard to believe the star was a rookie.

In “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” the performer is hounded by the government for performing her song “Strange Fruit,” about lynching.

“‘Strange Fruit’ is a mirror,” Day said. “It puts a mirror up in front of America and says, ‘Look at what you’re doing.'”

There are echoes of “Strange Fruit” in the anthem Day made famous, “Rise Up.”

“‘Rise Up’ is a song of triumph,” Daniels said. “‘Strange Fruit’ is a call to arms.”

Watch this movie, and you’ll understand why Holiday deserves to be remembered as “the Godmother of the civil rights movement.”

Daniels said it was “Lady Sing the Blues” that make him want to be a director, but he realized it wasn’t Holiday’s full story.

“I was like, where have I been for all these 59 years? How come I don’t know this story when I sort of know everybody’s story, or I thought I did, when it comes to Black history,” Daniels said. “It made me think about the many stories that aren’t told that we don’t know about. And so I had to tell the story.”

Day said she was excited to work with Daniels and make a film with him. They formed a connection over Billie, who she’d loved since age 11, and the fact that they both thought this was a “terrible idea.”

“It was something we had to overcome and we just saw each other, we were just very present with each other, I saw his desire, it was so deep, to tell this story, and to vindicate Billie Holiday’s legacy, which was really incentivizing for me because I’m a huge fan of hers and this idea that she would go down in history as this tragic drug addict who was troubled has always pained me,” Day said.

Then Daniels saw a tape, filmed in secret by Day’s acting coach, of her transforming into Holiday, and he was sold. It had to be Day.

Making the film was a challenge, though. Daniels shot on film, which ate up a large part of the budget, and he wanted to make sure to depict her world and all its glamour, so all the money they could scrape together is “on the screen.”

“There’s a beauty of working in independent cinema because I don’t have to answer to anybody but the actors and my crew,” Daniels said. “There’s no outside interference from suits who don’t know anything about our culture. It was great to just do us. Everything you see on that screen is us. It’s our soul.”

Day was grateful that the start date kept getting pushed back. She had about a year and a half to prepare, which started confusing her mother when she’d drift into Billie-isms in real life.

“My behaviors would change. I was smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol and just wilder than I’m used to being, more emotionally vulnerable and open,” Day said. “I’m a Capricorn, I keep that (expletive) on lock.”

Getting into character turned out to be the least of her problems. Getting out of character was another story. It even alarmed Daniels.

“I get emotional talking about this girl because she’s getting ready to be mega famous after this,” Daniels said. “(But) I was terrified for her as we were as we were coming to an end. One of the last things that we shot was her singing ‘All of Me’ and I said, it’s time for you to release Billie. You’ve got to sing it as Andra now…She couldn’t do it, she could not leave Billie and she knew she let me down. So she started crying.”

Day did not, in fact, let Daniels down and the tears made it into the final moments of film, but the next thing he did was to book a vacation for his lead to Tulum, Mexico. He split the cost with the production.

But Day was too attached. Even after she got back, she had trouble letting Billie go and would get excited to do additional shoots, which felt like “purpose again.”

And the commitment is earning her awards buzz and a nomination at Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards.

“It’s that Lee Daniels effect,” she laughed. The Daniels-produced “Monster’s Ball” got Halle Berry her Oscar and then “Precious,” which he directed, got a nomination for Gabourey Sidibe and a win for Mo’Nique.

Daniels is still a bit heartbroken that the film won’t be released widely in theaters after he fought so hard to shoot it on film, but after the protests of last summer he knew he needed to get it out.

“We had that incident that just changed America and everybody went to the streets and you couldn’t make that up,” he said. “We could have pushed it to next year. But I thought it was important to release it right now, given everything that was going down in America.”

As for Day? Billie is still there in some ways.

“I’m still trying to navigate it,” Day said. “But I’m not out on a cliff anymore.”

“The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” is now streaming to homes everywhere on Hulu, owned by the same parent company as this ABC station.

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