How Hulu has sold a biopic of a civil rights icon.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is not the first time the story of the singer and civil rights figure has made it to feature film, first in 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues. This time around Andra Day plays Holiday and instead of being an all-inclusive biopic, the story focuses on an era of her career where she was targeted by federal agents for instigating racial unrest, specifically with her song “Strange Fruit.” As a pretense, the government goes after her for her drug uses, adding a racial element to the burgeoning war on drugs.
Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Suzan-Lori Parks, the movie also stars Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, whom Holiday was at least friends with and may have had an affair with, and Garrett Hedlund and Trevante Rhodes as two of the federal agents going after the singer. It currently sports a paltry 58% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, indicative of the mixed reviews it’s received. But Hulu’s campaign has played it as an awards-contender, especially based on Day’s performance in the title role.
Elements of the layout on the one and only poster (by marketing agency BLT Communications) released in January are meant to reinforce each other through apparent contradictions. Specifically, the copy “Her voice would not be silenced” both contradicts and supports the image of Holiday with her mouth hidden by the microphone. That shows how Holiday used music and song to keep her message going out, even under pressure.
The first trailer (307k views on YouTube) was released by Hulu in mid-January, opening by showing us Holiday as a woman who knows what she wants. After some standard biopic elements, we see that her efforts to integrate the music scene and other activities have gotten the unwelcome attention of lawmakers in Washington, who want to discredit her and shut down whatever influence she has. That leads to her arrest, after which she has a hard time getting started again. Still, she’s determined to follow the path she believes in, even if it means putting herself in danger.
Online and Social
No website that was easily found, but Hulu did give the movie some promotional support on its brand social media profiles instead of creating one-offs.
Advertising and Promotions
The project was one of those up for grabs at the 2020 Cannes Virtual Market, with Paramount eventually winning the competition and acquiring distribution rights. Later on Paramount took it off its schedule as Hulu picked it up.
A featurette from early February had Day and others talking about Holiday’s part in the Civil Rights Movement and her continued influence today.
Day’s full performance of “Strange Fruit” was released to show just how powerful that song still is.
Audible announced a tie-in limited-series podcast that framed contemporary issues through the lens of Holiday’s life and struggles.
Media and Press
How Day prepared for the role, including the singing she was going to have to do, was covered in an interview with the actress.
Writer Suzan-Lori Parks was interviewed about how she portrayed Holiday’s conflict with U.S. law enforcement officials and what similarities her protests have with those of today. Costume designer Paolo Nieddu spoke on not wanting to recreate Holiday’s style exactly but offer a twist on that style to make it more dramatic.
An extensive profile of Daniels not only touches on how and why he told this story but also on the fact he’s newly sober and how that played into the production. He was then interviewed about capturing the legacy of Holiday’s real-life activism, his desire to expose Holiday to a new generation of audiences, the importance of highlighting her battle with the government and more.
In a joint interview with Day, Daniels talked about how studios weren’t interested in the project for a long time as well as how they wanted to portray Holiday as realistically as possible. He also touched on the potential comparisons with Lady Sings The Blues, the previous film about Holiday.
Additional interviews with Day covered how she physically and emotionally embodied Holiday, especially on stage, the physical changes she made – including gaining weight and smoking – for the part and more.
When she appeared on “The Tonight Show” she shared again how she initially turned down the role and what she did to make herself ready for it and shared a video for a remix of “Strange Fruit”. Day performed “Tigress and Tweed” on “The View” and was interviewed by Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show.”
The campaign understands that the story is (or at least should be) compelling enough, but if the audience isn’t pulled in through that, Hulu’s hope appears to be they will tune in for Day’s performance as Holiday. That’s why she has performed “Strange Fruit” on a number of occasions and in a number of ways and why so many of the interviews with the actress have focused on the work she did to fully take on the role.
That’s coupled with the other major element of the campaign, which is Daniels’ focusing on the importance of telling Holiday’s story, one that has a number of elements making it relevant decades after the events happened. He’s been talking the entire time about her legacy and related topics in an attempt to make it less of a period piece, which may turn off some members of the audience, and more contemporary.
It also needs to be noted that this is the second movie released in February about a real life black activist being targeted – under questionable if not completely fabricated auspices – by law enforcement. If I had to guess I’d say there are countless similar stories, many of which the white public aren’t familiar with or aware of.