Lee Daniels’s Billie Holiday Biopic Will Explore A Lesser-Known Scandal

The film, which will star Andra Day as Lady Day, examines a connection between the jazz singer and the war on drugs.

Billie Holiday Portrait
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Many stars have stepped into the shoes of Billie Holiday on screen and on stage: Diana Ross portrayed the jazz singer in Lady Sings the Blues (and delivered a performance that earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in 1973), and Audra MacDonald took over the role in Lanie Robertson’s play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (winning a Tony Award in 2014, and appearing in the filmed HBO special).

Now, Oscar and Grammy nominee Andra Day will star as Holiday in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, a forthcoming biopic directed by Empire creator and Precious director Lee Daniels. Stories that dramatize the life of the iconic jazz singer often focus on her music career, her improvisational vocal style, and her raspy range, and end with her tragic death from alcohol and drug related complications in 1959 at the age of 44. The film by Daniels, however, will explore what appears to be a direct connection between Holiday’s death and the war on drugs perpetuated by U.S. government agencies.

Per reports from Deadline, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (which was written by the Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks) is adapted from Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Hari has written on this not-so-well-known piece of Holiday history before, in Politico, where it was reported that shortly after Holiday performed “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching and murders in the United States, she received the first of many threats from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Near the end of her life, in May 1959, Holiday was admitted into a New York hospital for treatment of liver and heart diseases, but when she arrived, she was arrested in her hospital bed for possession of heroin. She had been targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for 20 years, and she was watched by the police while lying on her deathbed. The sting operation was led by Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, a black agent who was hired by FBN leader Harry J. Anslinger and also had an affair with the singer.

Daniels has rounded out the rest of the film’s ensemble to include a buzzy cast consisting of actors Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, and Natasha Lyonne. The film is scheduled to film in Montreal from October to December, with a yet-to-be-determined release date.

You might think you already know a lot about Holiday, as her addictions have been made just as famous as her groundbreaking career highlights and commercial success, but this film will offer more insight into the singer’s journey than what you can get from a quick scan of her Wikipedia page.

Related: Family Values: Lee Daniels