“I actually said no,” she tells me about her initial reaction to being cast as the iconic jazz singer in The United States of America vs Billie Holiday. As she recalls, director Lee Daniels (Precious) was quite certain about her as well. “Lee was like, ‘I don’t want to meet her. She’s not an actress. I don’t know and I don’t like her,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘Hell no, I don’t want to do a movie let alone this movie, I know I’m going to be terrible.’ So we were forced upon each other by our managers.” Good thing, too. Far from “terrible”, Day’s turn as Holiday is one of the year’s best performances, already landing her a Golden Globe award, Critics Choice nomination and plenty of buzz around her Oscar nomination.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) and with costumes designed by Prada, the biopic shows the singer as a civil rights leader. It traces the last years of her life as she was mercilessly hounded by the US government for refusing to stop performing her anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit”, and integrating Black and white audiences during her shows. The film zeroes in on how the government used her struggles with heroin addiction as an excuse to target and eventually imprison her, hence the court case The United States of America vs Billie Holiday. “If she went on stage any given night, it might have been her last for singing ‘Strange Fruit’,” Day explains. “I’m just so moved by her strength and her willingness to be attacked by the government to talk about what’s right. That is the godmother of the civil rights movement.”
Day says the process of becoming the entertainer was completely absorbing. She lost more than 15 kilograms, started swearing, smoking cigarettes and drinking gin – “a lot of gin”. “I had to earn the voice,” Day says, recalling that such a stark change in lifestyle wasn’t without a cost. “It impacted me hugely as my family, my friends and band had to go through it with me. But it was also one of those things that I couldn’t think about. I couldn’t think about the damage it was doing to my vocal cords. I just had to be present, I had to be her. And she wouldn’t be smoking cigarettes thinking, ‘This is damaging my vocal cords.’”
That dedication to her transformation bled into the atmosphere on set, with Day revealing there was an overwhelming sense of service to something bigger – the legacy of Billie Holiday – that underpinned the production. “Everybody felt the importance. Everybody knew we were there for a reason. We had to be, not just good, but great, and we had to get it right. We had to honour Billie,” she says. “And we definitely felt the weight. But I think what balanced that was just an incredible love for her, for the music and for each other.”
An overarching theme that emerges through the film is the double-standards Black women face living in the public eye, with sexist and racist respectability politics shaping the way they’re perceived and expected to behave. Holiday’s story – the way her personal struggles were weaponised to justify the government’s racist persecution of her – is prescient. While the events take place in the 1950s, there are many parallels to be drawn to our current day. “People would ask me, what similarities do you think that you and Billie Holiday have? And I’d laugh, because I’m like, ‘You know I’m a Black woman living in America, right?’” Day says with a chuckle. “I really hope that people understand Black women aren’t a monolith, we are all different, and we’re all individuals, and we all have a purpose in our individuality.”
Furthermore, Day wants audiences to leave the cinema considering history and how it’s written. “Billie Holiday’s story is not the only Black and marginalised story that has been suppressed and lied about,” she says. “If we’re going to dismantle the system, we must create platforms to tell the truth about these stories, because truth is really the only thing that can dismantle an unequal system that is based off of mistruths, lies and suppression.”
The United States vs Billie Holiday is in cinemas April 22.