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Sundance: Andra Day did not want to play Billie Holiday out of respect for singer

Adra Day plays the singer Billie Holiday in the Hulu original movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Photo courtesy of Hulu
Adra Day plays the singer Billie Holiday in the Hulu original movie "The United States vs. Billie Holiday." Photo courtesy of Hulu

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- When singer Andra Day was cast in the lead role of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, she didn't think she was ready to do justice to the legendary singer.

"I said no multiple times because I didn't want to dishonor her legacy," Day said on a Sundance Film Festival panel called Women Breaking Barriers, hosted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. "It was because I love Billie Holiday and because I am not an actress."

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The 36-year-old singer, who played a background singer in the movie Marshall and lent her voice to one of the automobiles in Cars 3, said she had intended to gradually cross over into acting. However, she would have started smaller.

"If it was my choice, I would've started with a little baby supporting role," Day said. "I didn't anticipate that I would go into acting this soon. I never would have imagined I would have started with a role like this."

Director Lee Daniels met Day to convince her to play Holiday. He shared with her his approach, which differed from the previous biopic starring Diana Ross as Holiday.

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"I also didn't want to remake Lady Sings the Blues," Day said. "As a fan, I didn't have a desire to retell a story that was not the full, full picture of Billie Holiday's life."

The film focuses on the Federal Bureau of Narcotics' pursuit of Holiday. FBN commissioner Harry Anslinger assigned FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher to the Holiday case on suspicion of using heroin. Garrett Hedlund plays Anslinger and Trevante Rhodes plays Fletcher.

"The idea of vindicating her legacy became a lot more enticing to me," Day said.

Anslinger banned Holiday from singing "Strange Fruit." The song describes lynchings, calling the hanging bodies "strange fruit" from the trees.

The film shows Holiday integrating nightclubs in the '30s. With White audiences present, she would sing "Strange Fruit" to inform them about lynchings.

"People [were] being lynched and everyone needs to be aware of this," Day said. "It needs to be in your face because if you can hide from it, it can persist."

The federal attention led to Holiday's arrest for using heroin. The film shows Holiday using heroin and spending a year and a half in prison on drug charges. Day said the federal pressure was intended to silence Holiday.

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"She was truly the early godmother of Civil Rights," Day said. "The first war on drugs was wholly entrenched in race and she was public enemy number one because she was integrating audiences."

Even Day said she didn't know the extent of the FBI and FBN's pursuit of Holiday. Anslinger and the FBN remained on Holiday's case until her 1959 hospitalization and death.

"I was aware of the government going after her for singing 'Strange Fruit,'" Day said. "Not the magnitude, the level that they went after her."

Day felt the story of the FBI and FBN pursuing Holiday was buried in history. She said it is important to keep telling Black stories and women's stories so that they are not silenced.

"The narrative is often changed to limit the scope of our struggle and our contribution," Day said. "That's intentional. A system of oppression cannot continue when the truth is in the space."

The United States vs. Billie Holiday premieres Feb. 26 on Hulu.

Sundance Film Festival, which is virtual this year, runs through Wednesday. Tickets are available at Tickets.festival.sundance.org

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