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Lee Daniels talks about ‘U.S. vs. Billie Holiday’ and the Black women of Philly who inspire all his work

“There is something about the Philadelphia Black woman that lives in all my work,” director Lee Daniels said. His latest is now on Hulu.

This image released by Hulu shows director Lee Daniels (left) with Andra Day on the set of "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."
This image released by Hulu shows director Lee Daniels (left) with Andra Day on the set of "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."Read moreTakashi Seida / Hulu via AP

Consult any database to find the first official director’s credit for Lee Daniels, and you’ll see it listed as Shadowboxer, back in 2005.

But his first real directing gig was much earlier, here in the city’s Wynnefield neighborhood. The preteen Daniels, inspired by a performance at Playhouse in the Park, ran to the local library, straight to the theater section, and grabbed the text of the first play he could find on the shelf.

It was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s rage-fueled marathon of disintegrating middle-aged marriage, which young Lee decided to stage immediately.

“I took it back to my house, got all the kids on my stoop to read Martha and George, and I was directing from that point on,” said Daniels, now 61, speaking on Tuesday via Zoom from his Los Angeles home.

Daniels would go on to give life to Monster’s Ball (an Oscar for Halle Berry), Precious (an Oscar for Mo’Nique), the TV series Empire (Golden Globe Award for Taraji P. Henson) and now, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, arriving Friday on Hulu, another addition to Daniels’ dramatic pantheon of formidable, complex women.

Singer turned actress Andra Day, is Holiday, and she’s up for a Golden Globe. Daniels himself was honored with the Lumière Award on Wednesday from the Philadelphia Film Society for his towering achievements as a producer and director. I asked Daniels if he could account for his status as an awards magnet, especially for actresses of color.

“Because I’m getting this wonderful honor, I’m going to share with you one of my tricks,” he said. “It’s often that I don’t know what I’m doing. I really don’t.”

“I know what I want to accomplish in a scene, but I often don’t know how to get there,” Daniels said. “And when they see that sheer terror in my eyes, when they see that honesty, … they end up talking me off the ledge, and it’s in that moment that I yell, ‘Action,’ and it’s pure.”

» READ MORE: How West Philly’s Fran Ross posthumously became a literary force

Making ‘Billie Holiday’

The movie’s portrait of Holiday is pure Daniels, meaning it’s raw and full of blemishes. Day puts across the singer’s legendary artistry, but there are also unsparing details of Holiday’s battle with drugs and booze and abusive men.

She endured a different kind of abuse from federal agents. The film shows how she was targeted by the Bureau of Narcotics, establishing a war-on-drugs template that would endure for decades: singling out Black citizens for a disproportionate share of investigations, arrests, and imprisonment.

Holiday fought back with her music. As early as the late 1930s, she was singing the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit.” Her famous rendition was named song of the century by Time magazine.

“I wanted people to know that Billie Holiday was a civil rights leader in her own way,” Daniels said. “She really did kick off the civil rights movement as we know it, and that is still relevant today, because we’re still dealing with those same issues that have happened from the time we got off the boat as slaves.”

The feds eventually arrested Holiday on a possession charge — here in Philadelphia, in 1947, after a performance at the Earle Theater (shown in the movie), when drugs were found in her room at the Attucks Hotel. This led to a one-year term in prison.

Holiday was actually born in West Philadelphia, at a hospital where her teenage mother had come to deliver before quickly returning to Baltimore. Daniels believes the Philadelphia origins somehow left a mark — she retained, he said, some of the power that he finds in the souls of Black women in Philadelphia.

“There is something about the Philadelphia Black woman that lives in all my work.” he said. “It’s really based on several women in my family. … There is something resilient about them. I don’t know what it is, but the word ‘powerhouse’ applies. That, plus humor, there is a humor behind the power of it all.”

Soul to soul with the singer

When Daniels talks about Holiday’s soul, he is speaking sincerely. “I’m telling you, I think the spirit of Billie was really present. I prayed to her, talked to her, had conversations with her,” he said.

It was during one of these conversations that he was persuaded to cast Day, a Grammy-nominated singer (she captures Holiday’s voice, tone, and inflection in an uncanny way) but one with zero film experience.

“Believe me, we were taking a big chance by hiring somebody to play Billie, in every scene, who has never acted before,” he said, " I could have hired an actress, but I didn’t, because Billie told me to hire her.”

Holiday “spoke to” Daniels in other ways. The famously candid director, who has talked frankly about being Black and gay in Hollywood, recently opened up about his longtime addiction to drugs and alcohol. This, he says, was his first movie sober, and it gave him insight into Holiday’s grueling bouts of sobriety and relapse.

“Oh yeah, listen, if you are suffering with an addiction and you stop, you are naked,” he said. “You have that drink and you’re good, you’re able to forget your problems. Do you have enough money to finish the film? Is the film any good? Are you any good? I think that’s why Hitchcock always closed [his show] with that martini shot. Because by the end of the day, you are shaking.”

Daniels has been able to beat back temptation. Holiday never could, not for long, and the film follows her to her death in 1957, still an addict, chained to a hospital bed (a shot Daniels emphasizes as a reference to Jacob Blake) by authorities still hounding her on drug charges.

The movie also follows Black federal narcotics officer Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) as he infiltrates Holiday’s inner circle, then provides evidence that leads to the singer’s arrest. Part of the character’s emotional complexity is drawn from the toll that being a Black police officer in Philadelphia during the Rizzo era took on Daniels’ own father, Cpl. William L. Daniels.

‘I’d never seen him cry before’

“One night he came home crying. I’d never seen him cry before. This was a 6′4″ man, strong, sparred with Muhammad Ali, was his bodyguard when he came to Philadelphia,” said Daniels.

Precisely what happened “he took with him to his grave,” Daniels said. “It haunted him, and I used that energy for Jimmy when her took [Holiday] down.”

Daniels’ father was killed in the line of duty in 1975, and Lee was awarded a Hero Fund Scholarship reserved for children of slain officers, which he used to study theater in college. When he dropped out of school to find work in Los Angeles, he was so afraid to tell his mother that he lived for a while on the streets before taking up residence in a church, which he calls divine intervention.

He began to direct church theater there, started managing some of the actors, getting them film and TV work and learning about life on set from the bottom up. “I never went to film school, but I teach at film schools,” he said. “How crazy is that?”

Next up from Daniels after The United States vs. Billie Holiday is the Netflix movie Concrete Cowboy starring Idris Elba, expected out soon, a filmed-in-Philly project that he produced. The movie was inspired by the urban riding academies of North Philadelphia, and Daniels said he hopes the film draws attention to the difficulty the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is having finding stables and facilities for its horses and riders.

Daniels said Concrete Cowboy is one of the most beautiful movies ever to be filmed in the city, and seeing it has him thinking of making his next movie, a ghost story, in Philadelphia.

“What would a Lee Daniels horror movie look like?” he said, laughing as he pondered the question. The awards shows will be keen to find out.