The Southwest Philadelphia Director, Producer, and Writer, Lee Daniels receives a Lumière Award and presents an exclusive advance screening of The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Film Society and the overlords of local cinema, director-producer-writer Lee Daniels, a native of my old neighborhood, Southwest Philadelphia, received the Philadelphia Film Society’s highest honor. It is the fourth-ever Lumière Award following a virtual screening of his upcoming film, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday. Named for film’s first makers Auguste and Louis Lumière. And given to those artists with direct ties to the Philadelphia area. Past recipients include M. Night Shyamalan, Bruce Willis, and Adam McKay.
During a talkback award conversation with fellow Philadelphia native filmmaker Tommy Oliver, Lee Daniels chatted enthusiastically about his roots in Southwest Philly. And mentioned having garbage thrown at him for being Black and Gay. He brought up his earliest live film experiences. Seeing John Waters’ Pink Flamingos at the Theatre of Living Arts on South Street. Being amazed by its magical oddity, then bringing his mother and grandmother to see the same film with a less than enthusiastic response from his elders. “That visceral reaction,” one slap in the head and a stern talking-to for having brought them to see Waters’ weird funny filth, is what made Daniels want to make similar controversial and incendiary film. Uncompromising film. Powerful Black film.
While he joked about having made the charmingly tame The Butler for his mother… “She kept asking me when I was going to make a nice film like Tyler Perry”… Getting out of television, momentarily, as he produced Fox’s hit hip hop serial dramas Star and Empire, for several years until the pandemic… Then getting back to making movies as his way to tell more self-contained stories, in its own way, Daniels’ Billie Holiday felt dangerously close to the director. This coming from a man who made such stark, even horrific dramas, such as Monster’s Ball and Precious, based on the novel, PUSH, by Sapphire.
Daniels employed a script from playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. The movie stars singer-turned-actor Andra Day as the jazz vocal legend in a magnetic and poignant film debut that should net her an Oscar nomination. Daniels’ alluring and fiery film tells a sad true tale, one more morose, yet driven than the one before it. It recalls the many layers of Holiday’s insistent, racist run-ins with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, Harry J. Anslinger’s and Federal Department of Narcotics. All because of the power, and their fear, of one song… “Strange Fruit.”
Legendarily one of music’s most harsh and politicized songs, it sharply and quietly compares lynched, burned and brutalized Black bodies in the South to the bittersweet fruits hanging from the trees, with the scent of magnolia lingering in the air. See Billie perform it HERE, and you’ll never forget it.
That was Holiday’s purpose in continuing to sing that song despite the often violent interaction of unscrupulous lovers-turned-managers who sought to tamp down the vocalist’s ardent anti-Black activism at great, on-going risk to her career. That Holiday forever struggled with alcoholism and heroin addiction made her an easy target for FBI and FDN undercover sting operations. One led by Black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had an affair as detailed in the film. And unnecessary arrests. The last one, the most undignified blow occurring on her death bed. The last time that Holiday refused to back down or give up her right to sing a most stirring song of empowerment. To this end, Day, literally and figuratively, portrays Holiday starkly, nakedly, wounded. But still proud and strong.
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, out February 26 in theaters and on HULU, will take your breath away.