For the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the story of Billie Vacation, the legendary jazz singer, got here to her in dribs and drabs. When Parks was rising up, she mentioned, “our dad and mom would inform us, ‘She had a tragic story.’ After which, as we acquired somewhat older, ‘She used medicine.’ After which as we acquired somewhat older, my mother would begin saying issues like, you realize, they acquired to her. However she didn’t actually get into it.”
Within the forthcoming drama “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Parks, who wrote the screenplay, actually will get into it, putting a lot of Vacation’s better-known battles — with heroin dependancy, Jim Crow-era racism, and a seemingly infinite string of swindlers and cads — within the context of her lesser-known struggles with Harry J. Anslinger, the unabashedly racist head of the now-defunct Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
“The story is about how this lady, this icon, was a lot too outspoken, and so the federal government got here after her,” Parks mentioned in a telephone interview. “It’s about how we African-American people love this nation that doesn’t actually love us again.”
Directed by Lee Daniels, the movie reveals how Anslinger doggedly pursued Vacation (performed by the Grammy-nominated vocalist Andra Day) ostensibly for her drug use, however often because she refused to cease singing “Strange Fruit,” the haunting and visceral anti-lynching anthem that has develop into probably the most well-known protest songs of all time.
The position, Day admitted, was daunting. Vacation was one of many world’s most gifted and celebrated jazz singers, her songs later coated by artists like John Coltrane, Barbra Streisand and Nina Simone, her affect felt by singers from Frank Sinatra to Cassandra Wilson to Day herself. After which there have been all of the others who had tackled the position earlier than her. “I simply had this concept operating in my head that individuals could be like: ‘Billie Vacation’s so superb, Diana Ross was superb, Audra McDonald was superb,’” Day mentioned in a video name. “‘Oh, after which keep in mind that woman, Andra Day, who tried to play Billie?’”
Premiering on Hulu on Feb. 26, the biopic is the most recent in a sequence of portrayals of Woman Day and her music that date again a long time. Day’s Golden Globe-nominated efficiency follows Ross’s star flip within the 1972 function “Woman Sings the Blues” and McDonald’s Tony-winning performances within the Broadway musical “Woman Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” As well as, there have been biographies (“Billie Vacation: Hoping on the Moon”), kids’s books (“Mister and Woman Day: Billie Vacation and the Canine Who Liked Her”), and documentaries (“The Lengthy Evening of Woman Day”; “Billie”). Over time, portrayals of Vacation have develop into extra nuanced, shifting focus away from her issues with dependancy to incorporate insights into her historical past and legacy as a musician, a pioneering Black feminine entertainer and, with “Unusual Fruit,” a champion of civil rights.
Looming over all of them is “Lady Sings the Blues,” Vacation’s 1956 ghostwritten autobiography, which omitted many particulars of her life (the singer’s affairs with Orson Welles and Tallulah Bankhead) and fictionalized others (her native land; the marital standing of her dad and mom).
The e book fashioned the idea for the 1972 biopic, a movie that, coincidentally, impressed Daniels to develop into a director. (His credit embrace “The Butler” and “Treasured.”) “‘Lady Sings the Blues’ modified my life,” he mentioned in a telephone interview. “It was stunning Black folks. It was Diana Ross on the peak of her the whole lot. It was Black excellence blended in with somewhat little bit of pig’s toes and pineapple soda and cornbread. It was magic. I had by no means been so entranced by something.”
The musical “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” imagines a single set — however what a set! — throughout which the singer goes off the rails in a small nightspot in Philadelphia, the location of her earlier arrest on drug costs. (“Once I die,” she cracks, “I don’t care if I am going to heaven or hell, so long as it ain’t in Philly.”) Vacation rails in opposition to the dangerous males in her life, together with her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, and the nameless attacker who raped her when she was a baby.
Since that musical’s premiere in 1986, a bunch of would-be Woman Days have tackled the demanding position in theaters throughout the nation, together with Lonette McKee and Ernestine Jackson. In 2014, McDonald’s rendition received the actress a record-breaking sixth Tony.
To deliver the icon to life in “The US vs. Billie Vacation,” Parks learn the whole lot she might concerning the singer and immersed herself in her music. She reread “Woman Sings the Blues” however didn’t revisit the film. (“Lee loves that movie, so I used to be like, I’m going to let him have that.”) She additionally learn a number of books by Anslinger, Vacation’s longtime nemesis (performed by Garrett Hedlund within the movie), who declared that jazz “sounded just like the jungle at the hours of darkness” and declared that the lives of its gamers “reek of filth.”
“Anslinger was fascinated with what he referred to as the ‘jazz kind,’ and noticed himself as making America nice once more,” Parks mentioned.
Parks additionally studied up on Jimmy Fletcher, the Black narcotics agent whom Anslinger enlisted to assist deliver Vacation down. “That’s the scenario we’re in as Black America proper now,” Parks mentioned. “Need to show you’re probably not Black? Put down some Black folks. That’s the way in which to climb the ladder within the leisure enterprise. I’m not going to call any names! However you continue to see it.”
Along with Fletcher and Anslinger, a complete roster of dangerous males enter Vacation’s life, together with the mob enforcer Louis McKay, the singer’s third husband. Within the 1972 “Woman Sings the Blues,” McKay, as performed by Billy Dee Williams, is Vacation’s super-suave, would-be savior, who struggles mightily (and fails) to get the singer off medicine. (The true McKay served as that film’s technical adviser.) In actuality — and in Daniels’s movie — McKay was a pimp, a junkie and a spouse beater.
“The identical lady who was so sturdy, who might see so clearly the injustices in our tradition, simply saved hooking up with the improper man,” Parks mentioned. “However I suppose that’s the way it at all times is. Nice folks do nice issues, however then at residence, they’re like —” and right here the author screamed.
Even so, the singer who emerges in “The US vs. Billie Vacation” is extra fighter than sufferer, taking over Anslinger (close to the top of the movie, she tells him, “Your grandkids are going to be singing ‘Unusual Fruit’”) and holding her personal in opposition to Fletcher.
“You get to see her as human,” Day mentioned. “As Black girls, we’re not supposed to indicate the ugly elements or the errors. Billie’s humorous, she has this nice magnetism, she could be loopy and self-destructive. However she will be able to additionally arise and be a pillar of power when forces which might be a lot higher than her are attempting to destroy her.”
James Erskine, the director of the recent documentary “Billie,” additionally wished to maneuver past the usual narratives of Vacation as sufferer. “I used to be actually eager to indicate that she lived life,” he mentioned. “There’s a sequence the place she’s on 42nd Avenue and he or she’s having a lot of intercourse and taking a lot of medicine, and I actually wished that to really feel very optimistic, that she was figuring out her personal future.”
Erskine’s movie drew from 200 hours of audio interviews carried out by the journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl within the 1970s. Lots of the feedback haven’t aged effectively: One psychiatrist declares Vacation a psychopath; others attribute her beatings by assorted males to masochism.
The documentary additionally contains commentary about Vacation’s deep and platonic love for the saxophonist Lester Younger, her unfulfilled want to have kids, and her sold-out 1948 live performance at Carnegie Corridor, following her stint in a federal jail in West Virginia.
“The notion from ‘Woman Sings the Blues’ could be very a lot Billie as sufferer and junkie, however I feel that whereas she was victimized by folks, she was actually a fighter,” Erskine mentioned. “And she or he was additionally an amazing artist, after all, which is why we’re nonetheless speaking about her lengthy after she died.”
For Daniels, Vacation’s story will at all times be related. “It’s America’s story,” he mentioned. “And till we’re therapeutic, till American has healed, it’s not going to not be related.”
In Parks’s view, “She was a soldier. Simply the truth that she saved singing ‘Unusual Fruit’! She was a soldier of the primary order. These mink coats and diamonds that she wore had been her armor, and her voice was her sword.”