Andra Day’s Billie Holiday

The United States vs. Billie Holiday debuts this Friday, February 26, on Hulu.

First-time actress Andra Day had big shoes to fill as star of The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

The last woman to star as Lady Day in a major motion picture – Diana Ross, also a successful singer making her movie debut –  received an Oscar nomination for 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, and won a Golden Globe as most promising female newcomer (a now-defunct category).

In preparation for Day’s role as Holiday, director Lee Daniels had her watch 1982’s Frances, a bio of actress Frances Farmer, for which Jessica Lange received both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.   

Day has already received a Globe nomination, and we’ll be watching this Sunday, February 28 to see if she wins — and watching again on March 15 to see if she also gets an Oscar nod.

Director Daniels has nothing but praise for the earlier Billie Holiday biopic, which he first saw as a 13-year-old. “Lady Sings the Blues is the reason I’m here today. The movie blew my mind,” he commented during a recent virtual Q&A held by American Cinematheque. “I wanted to get people to feel the way I did.”

And turning to Frances, he wanted Andra Day to “feel the way Jessica Lange made me feel.”

Lady Sings the Blues told the true story of a famed jazz singer who perseveres through abusive relationships, alcohol and drug abuse. It also told of her early days as a prostitute.

Frances told the true story of a famed Hollywood actress who perseveres through alcohol abuse and a mental breakdown.

What Lady Sings the Blues doesn’t focus on, however, is the U.S. government’s efforts to bring down Billie Holiday. This territory was also explored earlier this year in the excellent documentary, Billie, which included actual audio interviews with the FBI narcotics agent who followed her for years.

It’s Daniels’ contention that Billie Holiday “kicked off the civil rights movement with the song ‘Strange Fruit’….You think of her as a jazz singer, as a heroin addict, but not as a civil rights leader. I felt I had to do her justice.”

Holiday’s insistence on continuing to sing Strange Fruit, whose mournful lyrics depicted Southern lynchings (and which itself became the subject of a 2002 documentary of the same title), set off the government ‘s long campaign against her, according to The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

Day told the American Cinematheque audience that she wasn’t shocked by what the government did. “What shocked me was her resilience and her fight. She is truly the godmother of civil rights.”

Where to watch the movies and awards mentioned above

The United States vs. Billie Holiday debuts on Hulu this Friday, February 26.

Lady Sings the Blues is not currently available for streaming, but you can buy it on DVD ($12.44) or Blu-Ray ($14.96) from Amazon.

Frances can be streamed by Amazon Prime subscribers, or for $3.99 from various providers

Billie is available for 99 cents from Amazon, FandangoNow, Google Play, iTunes or Redbox.

Strange Fruit can be streamed free on Kanopy, if your local public library participates in that service. You can also rent it for $2.99 from Vimeo.

The Golden Globe Awards will be presented this Sunday, February 28, at 8 pm ET on NBC.

The Oscar nominations will be announced at 8:30 am ET on Monday, March 15 on ABC, or the ABC app.

The Oscars themselves will be presented Sunday, April 25, on ABC.

(Top photo: Andra Day in ‘The United States v. Billie Holiday,’ courtesy Hulu)

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