It has been nearly 62 years since Billie Holiday passed away. Hundreds of dissertations, books, films and documentaries later, she is a blank canvas onto which fans and detractors project their hopes, dreams and issues. I see a strong Black woman whose back did not bend.
From an early age, Billie was failed by the institutions that should have protected her. She was racially profiled and harassed by the FBI and hounded by the Philadelphia Police Department. From where Billie sat, the whole of the United States was arrayed her. But still she persisted. She didn’t give a damn what folks thought about her drug abuse, sexuality or string of no-good men.
Billie was a popular club artist and concert artist but she harbored no illusion about her audiences. She famously said, “They come to see me fall on my ass.” While there, she demanded their attention when she sang “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching protest song that took a toll on her livelihood and ultimately her life.
The Billie Holiday historical marker at 1409 Lombard Street piqued my interest in investigating her story beyond the marker. One of Billie’s Philadelphia stories is told in the new biopic starring Andra Day and directed by Lee Daniels.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now streaming on Hulu.
I recently watched the powerful new documentary Billie via an exclusive screening by the 92nd Street Y.
Billie breathes life into nearly 50-year-old audiotapes of the hundreds of interviews journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl conducted with Holiday’s contemporaries including Count Basie, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, singer Sylvia Syms and drummer Jo Jones. Archival materials and first-hand accounts shed light on systemic racism, racial segregation and the undertold story of her commitment to racial justice.
The civil rights pioneer said “Strange Fruit” was her personal protest. She performed the song at the end of every performance for 20 years despite FBI and police harassment. Bassist Charles Mingus said, “She was fighting equality before Martin Luther King. … That might be why the cops were against her too, not just junk.”
The special screening was followed by a Q&A with director James Erskine and executive producer Michele Smith, manager of the Billie Holiday Estate.
Billie is now showing in theaters and on virtual cinema. For updates, go here.