Andra Day plays Billie Holiday in the new Hulu film. (Hulu)
The United States vs Billie Holiday star Andra Day has explained how she and director Lee Daniels wanted to bring to light how the government “chased down” the legendary, openly bisexual jazz singer.
The new Hulu film, starring Andra Day as Billie Holiday, hones in on the US government’s attempts to block the singer from performing her haunting protest song “Strange Fruit”, weaponising its “war on drugs” against her.
As the film shows, Holiday was hunted for years as she struggled with addiction, physically pulled from stages as she tried to perform the anti-lynching song and eventually jailed on a drug possession charge – a stark contrast to how white stars of the time were treated.
“This woman had so much trauma and pain in her life, and the fact that she was even able to laugh,” Day told USA Today, explaining how she met with people suffering from addiction to get an insight into Holiday’s condition.
“I think most people don’t understand that it’s a mental illness,” she added.
For Daniels, the most “crazy part” was “having to normalise the abuse she received at the hands of men, including her husband.
“[It] was a really crazy part because when she gets hit in the face or punched or knocked out by her husband, she’s not going ‘Oh my God, he did a terrible thing to me.’ It’s very, very normal for her, she’s used to men being abusive since she was a child.”
Daniels based his film on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Neither he nor Day were interested in remaking the famous Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, which starred Diana Ross in the lead role, with Day “excited as a fan of Billie Holiday’s to be able to vindicate her legacy”.
Daniels added: “I really wanted to bring light to the government chasing her down.”
“I can’t imagine the government trying to stop this woman from singing a song because they knew it would cause an uproar. And I can’t imagine this woman just saying ‘No, I’m not going to not sing this song. This song is too important.’”
The film also explores the fact that Holiday was bisexual, and stars Natasha Lyonne as her lover Tallulah Bankhead.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is streaming on Hulu.