Lee Daniels Calls Billie Holiday the ‘Godmother’ of the Civil Rights Movement

Music icon Billie Holiday’s life and legal troubles are the subjects of Lee Daniels’ new movie,  The United States vs. Billie Holiday.  The director showcases the singer’s courage and resolve despite being the target of a racist government witch hunt. And when reflecting on Holiday’s life, Daniels says he considers her the “godmother” of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Billie Holiday’s performances of ‘Strange Fruit’ cause controversy

After seeing the horrific photo of a lynching in the mid-1930s, a New York City English teacher named Abel Meeropol penned the poem “Strange Fruit” under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. With haunting verses like “Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” Meeropol’s words painted a picture of the hypocrisy, torture, and injustice people of color were facing.

After Meeropol composed music for the piece, a local club owner gave “Strange Fruit” to Holiday. In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday noted that the song reminded her of her late father, who died after a hospital turned him away because he was Black.

RELATED: Billie Holiday and Louis McKay Got Married 1 Year After Being Arrested Together

“It reminds me of how Pop died,” she wrote. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because 20 years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”

Billie Holiday kept singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ despite the Feds telling her not to

Holiday’s performances of “Strange Fruit” were not well received by some of her White audiences, with many walking out during the song.  Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger, a known racist, was particularly offended by Holiday’s song. And he ultimately forbade her from singing it. 

But when Holiday did not comply with Anslinger’s request, he put her on his hit list. It was public knowledge that Holiday had issues with drugs. So Anslinger launched an investigation against her, had her arrested, tried, and sent to prison for narcotics possession.

‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ director Lee Daniels says Holiday was more than a singer

In a recent interview with TV Line, Daniels talked about Holiday’s life and struggles. He said that while the world may remember her for her troubles, they should recognize Holiday’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.

“I think that it says that she was not just a troubled jazz singer, as the media and the government have painted her out to be,” Daniels suggested. “But rather, she was the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s great that I’m able to tell the story of this fearless woman, and I think the takeaway is that if Billie Holiday could do what she did during that time period, then we could do a lot more.”

The United States vs. Billie Holiday stars Andra Day as Holiday and Garrett Hedlund as Anslinger. The film is currently streaming on Hulu.