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It’s been nearly 50 years since the debut of Lady Sings the Blues, which was a huge inspiration for writer-director-producer Lee Daniels—so much so, that he is now directing his own biographical drama about the iconic Billie Holiday, The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

Through her art—especially her stirring song, “Strange Fruit”—Holiday became pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, the song became known as the first protest song of the movement. Once Daniels learned that part of her story, he had to tell it.

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“I was shocked,” Daniels revealed. “I thought she was just a drug addict and a singer. I didn’t know that she was a civil rights leader, that’s she’s probably one of our first civil rights leaders. She sang ‘Strange Fruit’ and the government didn’t want her to sing [that song.] Nobody else was singing that song. It’s a fascinating story about a woman who happened to be addicted to and struggled with drugs, but heroes are all kinds. We think that just because you’re a drug addict, you can’t be a hero, too. If I were her, I would’ve tripped too if the government wouldn’t let me sing a song.”

We also talked about how he uses his platform and privilege to make a difference and he opened up about his life as a creator during the global pandemic. This week at The Root Institute, we are diving into the entertainment industry and how creators intersect art with activism.

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Check out the full conversation with Lee Daniels above.

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.

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