ANDRA DAY & BILLIE AND THE BLUES
by Norman Warwick
Relationships between film-makers and their stars are often fraught with doubt and suspicion, but Andra Day, film star, had good reason to suspect that Film-maker Lee Daniels had doubts about her ability to play the lead role in the film they have just made together. She really didn´t want to work with him, because he was adamant she wasn’t right to portray cultural icon Billie Holiday, the singer who helped give birth to the blues.
Lee Daniels (left) is an American film director, producer, and screenwriter. His first producer credit was Monster’s Ball (2001), with which he became the first African-American film producer to solely produce an Oscar-winning film, when Halle Berry won Best Actress. After his directorial debut Shadowboxer (2005) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Daniels directed Precious (2009), based on the novel Push. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including two nominations for Daniels (Best Director and Best Picture). In 2013, he directed Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a drama that tells the story of an African-American butler who served at the White House during seven presidential administrations. In 2015, Daniels co-created and directed Fox’s Empire and served as executive producer for all six seasons.
‘He was going around saying ‘She’s not an actress!’ and ‘Why are you forcing her on me?’, Day told Baz Bamigboye, film and arts critic for The Daily Mail, in an interview published earlier this year.
There was scorched-earth left after many of their rows, apparently, but, in the end, the film-maker relented and offered her the role of a lifetime, portraying the legend in a new film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Even that, though, did not immediately ease the tension or make for an easy ride.
‘To be honest with you,’ she admitted, ‘I actively tried to self-sabotage as a way to get out of it! As many times as possible. I was like: ‘Why are we doing this?’
Although she had never acted before, her vocal singing-style, she told Mr. Bamigboye, was inspired by years of listening to Holiday’s matchless interpretations of God Bless The Child and Strange Fruit, the harrowing number about black men lynched in the Deep South and left hanging from trees.
And Bamigboye reminded us that this 36-year-old recording star had won Grammy nominations for her music, including the haunting R&B anthem Rise Up.
As had Holiday, Andra has an affecting rasp when she sings; so that even before the film, her friends referred to her as Lady Day — a pun on her last name but also, of course, Billie’s sobriquet that was adapted as a title for a much earlier biopic starring Diana Ross.
The creative process of making a film is often as brutal as for any other art form, but Day said she and Daniels finally found their groove — and that she was eventually won over by his obvious love for Holiday.
The result is an electrifying portrait of a broken artist, often strung out on heroin, fighting back against an FBI that persecuted her relentlessly. And it justifies the film-title and powers the story that screened on Sky Cinema a month or so ago.
I watched that film, loving Holiday´s voice and songs as I do, already aware that our feature about her was to be a central pillar of our inaugural Sidetracks & Detours virtual Joined Up Jazz Festival scheduled for posting shortly after the screening over a fortnight in March. Andra´s singing proved pretty remarkable, too, and surely met the demands Daniels had made of her.
He had told her when they begin filming that this required ´more than an A to B performance. It’s the full alphabet.´
Andra Day admitted to The Daily Mail journalist that she was terrified when she finally did get the part. ‘I did not want to dishonour Holiday’s legacy,’ she told him, ‘nor that of Diana Ross [who played Holiday in that 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues]’.
Daniels hired an acting coach for Andra, and made her shed more than 30lb before filming began. ‘I don’t usually smoke or drink much,’ she said, ‘but I picked up cigarettes, and I picked up drinking.’
Chatting to The Daily Mail writer on Zoom, from her home in Los Angeles, she said she began frequenting bars . . . and ordering gin. ‘They’d go: ‘How do you want it?’ And I’d say: ‘Listen, I don’t know. Just give me some gin; like how Billie Holiday would drink it.’
She read a number of the many biographies available of the singer, and studied a photo album of her, containing mostly pictures of Billie with her dog, Mister Bamigboye reports that mentioning the pet’s name caused Andra to become slightly tearful, because it reminds her of a film-scene in which one of Holiday’s dogs dies. But the most difficult part of her research was in seeking to understand the singer’s addiction to heroin.
She sat with recovering addicts, one of whom taught her to tie a tourniquet around her arm and shoot up using an old-fashioned glass needle.
‘I could see this guy’s pupils dilate as he was zeroing in on what I was doing,’ she remembered. ‘He gave me everything I needed to know; why you would steal for it . . . why you would ruin relationships for it.’
Andra was shaken, too, by the degrading situations Holiday found herself in. The FBI couldn’t stop her singing Strange Fruit, (although they wanted to, as they saw the song as a call to arms) so, instead, they ordered a black agent to infiltrate her life, to try to get her on narcotics charges.
photo 3 Instead, Holiday and the agent, played by Trevante Rhodes (who was also so good in Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning Moonlight) fell in love; and Daniels doesn’t shy away from portraying their intimate moments together. ‘Yeah, the sex,’ Day said, mock fanning herself.
Of one scene in the film she is seen stripping out of suspenders, stockings and a bodice.
´She looks haggard and raw.´ Bamigboye suggests indelicately, but reminds us, ´It’s not meant to be pretty, and it isn’t´.
The actress, for this film certainly proves her to be worthy of that epithet, believes the U.S. government put Holiday through endless ordeals because they feared her power to unite black people behind the song Strange Fruit.
She added: ‘Billie Holiday was truly the godmother of civil rights.’
When people ask her what connects her with Billie, she tells them now, ´that I am a black woman living in America. There are obvious differences with the time period, and the different things we’ve experienced. ‘However there remains an inherent invisibility when it comes to not just being a woman, but being a black woman in America.’
Andra believes Billie Holiday was shunned ‘even by her own people’, although she found an appreciative white audience. In recent months, Day told The Daily Mail, she has detected that might begin to change.
The achievement of Vice President Kamala Harris and the vote campaign orchestrated by Stacey Abrams in Georgia shows Black women can be a force to be reckoned with ‘when we rally people together’.
Mr. Bamigboye who invariably gets these things right, reckons Andra Day herself will be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming awards season — though she is not counting her chickens.
‘I do music,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘So I’ve got to put an album out, otherwise my fans are going to kill me dead.’
This article was written by Norman Warwick, (left) biographer, poet, writer and radio broadcaster and a founder member. Norman also writes a weekly column for Lanzarote Information on-line. He is also a founder member of the Joined Up Jazz Journalists (JUJJ) formed in 2021 to deliver an annual on-line Joined Up Jazz Radio and Reading Festival.
The other members of JUJJ are Steve Bewick, writer and presenter of the weekly Hot Biscuits radio programme and Gary Heywood Everett, writer and jazz researcher and historian. You can listen to their programme at www.fc-radio.co.uk
The fourth member of JUJJ is Susana Fondon who is also a regular contributor to Lanzarote Information and articles by Susana and Norman are housed in the archives and can be accessed by signing up to the Lanzarote Information subscription newsletter.
There are also more than three hundred in depth articles housed in the archives of Sidetracks & Detours here at https://aata.dev
These archives include news, interviews, previews and reviews ranging all across the arts and include further related articles about Billie Holiday such as
- The United States vs. Billie Holiday, shown on Sky Cinema through the week from February 26 and reviewed by Norman Warwick and held in our archives. A BBC2 documentary, In Search Of Billie Holiday was also screened earlier this year and you can find a review of that in our archives by Gary Heywood-Everett.
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