Many know Billie Holiday’s music and legacy as a jazz crooner, but The United States vs. Billie Holiday aims to make audiences aware of the government conspiracy opposing her. The biopic, which premieres February 26 on Hulu, looks as the attempt by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to shut her down for singing the protest song, “Strange Fruit.”
Two of the agents are played by Evan Ross and Garrett Hedlund, who spoke to Screen Rant about the impact the real-life singer has on their youth and their place in the film.
Evan, this has to come full circle for you a little bit. Because your mom, the iconic Diana Ross, did a tremendous job as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues. Can you talk to me about the importance for you of joining this project?
Evan Ross: I knew of this project for a long time, because I’m close with Lee. We were actually working on Star when I think all this started getting put together.
I grew up with the story; I grew up with Billie Holiday, and I’ve been such a huge fan of hers. I grew up with a story of hers, Lady Sings the Blues, one of my favorite movies. And when he was doing this, I knew I wanted to be a part of it in some kind of way.
I love the fact that he was telling the story of what was going on with the government trying to take her down for her work of art that she was creating, and speaking out about things that they didn’t want her to talk about. It is, in a lot of ways, full circle because it’s always been a part of my life in some kind of way. And I’m so happy Lee let me be a part of it, because I feel like it’s such an important movie for right now.
Garrett, you play Harry Anslinger. He’s the reason why Billie Holiday is being targeted by the government, especially for singing “Strange Fruit.” Harry is under the belief that black people jazz and drugs are corrupting America at the time. What were some of the tactics Harry was using to bring down Billie Holiday?
Garrett Hedlund: Oh, man. Yeah, he indeed believed all of that and more. Some of the tactics were that he would plant drugs on her, he would plant spies within her tours. Any piece of information that could be used against her as an accusation, anything that he could get as evidence to tear her from the stage, was what he was seeking.
Harry Anslinger was the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and he was obsessed with arresting Billie for being an addict for singing “Strange Fruit.” Even though there were white artists that were mega stars and heroin addicts, he would send them to the doctor while he sent her to prison. He does anything to get her off stage, which was all an educational experience for me.
The script was based off Johann Hari’s Chasing The Scream, and it was so in-depth about the heavy opposition she was facing from the government, from her own American people at that time. For me being such a Billie Holiday fan for many years, and I’m not just saying that, I was so unaware of all of this. That’s what’s so powerful about this film.