During awards season, there are multiple opportunities for filmmakers and journalists to engage in cinema dialogue. Studios offer talent connected to films that are being pitched for awards consideration. During the pandemic, these events (film junkets) have transitioned to a virtual model allowing more journalists from around the world to connect with film artists. On occasion, we will offer some of these interactions between Elements of Madness partners/contributors and the filmmakers in a new form, Q-Bits. Today we talk with Lee Daniels (director) and Andra Day (lead acting talent) for The Hulu film The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Based on real events, The United States vs. Billie Holiday follows the life and career of the eponymous musician (Andra Day), as well as the controversy surrounding her hit song, “Strange Fruit,” whose lyrics depict a gut-wrenching portrait of the historical lynchings of Black Americans. Additionally, the film follows the Federal Department of Narcotics’ undercover investigation of Holiday and her affair with the operation’s lead agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). A story of racial oppression and division, civil rights challenges, and the musician who was at the forefront, it is sure to captivate audiences. Directed by Oscar-nominated Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), the film has earned three Critics Choice nominations, including Best Hair and Makeup, Day as Best Actress, and Best Song “Tigress and Tweed” – a Day original inspired by “Strange Fruit.”
Noel T. Manning II: Andra, how are you today?
Andra Day: Hi Noel, I’m blessed, how are you?
Noel Manning: Marvelous, absolutely. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. We are fortunate not just by your presence, but also the performance that you offered. It’s powerful; it speaks volumes beyond your voice. This feature film debut of you starring as Billie Holiday was vulnerable, raw and honest. You were astounding. So, thank you so much for that.
Andra Day: Thank you, thank you.
Noel Manning: When I look at this film, there were so many scenes that were just awe-inspiring. Do you remember that one scene featuring Billie (your character), when you said, ‘oh, we’ve got something special?’
Andra Day: You know what it is – it’s two scenes. And one is very obvious, and one is not as obvious, but they’re for two different reasons. Obviously the lynching scene is a huge one; the scene was done as a ‘oner’ (a long single take one-shot all the way through). It was so interesting. I think that there was such a quiet moment on set, and there were so many signs, I think spiritually, that happened during this scene that we knew like, ‘oh, this was something that was supposed to happen before us, maybe.’ But it was also really troubling, because it was heartbreaking to watch. It’s particularly the brilliant choice of Lee (Daniels) to lynch the mother, because I think it’s almost sadly easier for us to imagine it as a man, but women were lynched, and children were lynched. And so, I think it’s that he chose to use her to do that, and to look at her doing that, and to see those children watching this and to see them wailing. You know, you have everyone on set felt this overwhelming need to protect them, not just in the scene, but them and what they represent in future generations – for our generations to never have to see this or go through this again. The other part of it was that, I, during the scene, and I have to say this candidly, because it was something I really had to reconcile in myself, because lynching is a horrific sight – it’s a horrible thing, and it’s almost nothing worse. And I think that the fact that I had to pull from familial trauma in order to fully emotionally realize what I needed for that moment, made me go, ‘whoa, this should be enough.’ But, we’re too familiar. We as a community are too familiar with loss. We’re too familiar with tragedy and trauma of this magnitude, which makes us also equally victorious, but I realized in that moment we’re desensitized to a degree, and I don’t want that for our future generation and for those kids.
The other part of it, more simply put, was the scene where Billie’s in Baltimore. She’s back home, and she’s singing ‘[Gimme a] Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.’ And I love the idea of Billie Holiday crowd-surfing. And for me, I loved that, and it made me feel like we had something special, because – I hate to call them extras – but our smaller-roled cast were all so committed, and were so involved, and I was lost in that moment. And to me, that was her moment of just her at home, and human Billie. I want to see activist Billie, I want to see traumatized Billie, I want to see victorious Billie, I want to see human, fun-loving Billie, as well. And so that was really, really special to me.
Noel Manning: Thank you so, so much. I appreciate that.
Andra Day: Thank you – thank you so much.
Noel Manning: Lee, this is such a marvelous project on multiple levels. As you look at everything from costumes, to hair and makeup, to production design, to cinematography – was there one area that was the most challenging, yet most rewarding for you in the end?
Lee Daniels: The hair and makeup was the most challenging. The men and women back then (in the 1940s) had very specific hair. I wanted to do justice to everyone’s hair, and it was really, really hard. The wigs were incredible. Charles Gregory, who passed from Covid, did our wonderful black hair designs; he was the wig maker. He did all the wigs, and you can’t tell that they’re wigs. All the men have wigs in the film too and Andra … how many wigs did you have?”
Andra Day: A whole bunch (laughs) for all the different personalities.
Lee Daniels: So, yeah, the wigs were the hardest.
Elements of Madness appreciates the opportunity to engage with filmmakers and the films they create through interviews, critical analysis, and topical engagement and open observation.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is available on Hulu and has received awards’ recognition from numerous groups including two Golden Globe nominations and three Critics’ Choice nominations.
Kathryn Manning served as a writing and research assistant for this piece.
Noel T. Manning is a member of the CCA, SEFCA and the NCFCA and is also the host of the television program and radio show Meet Me at the Movies. He’s the founder of the Real to Reel Film Fest and is an adjunct professor of film studies. When he’s not embracing mainstream, indie, international, documentary or art films, he’s digging into the world of cinema by chatting with principle individuals involved in various aspects of the filmmaking industry.
Categories: Filmmaker Interviews