Screened as part of NZIFF 2002
Nothing else in listening to the great women of jazz compares to the jaw-dropping moment when you realise what Billie Holiday is singing about when she sings Strange Fruit. In the words of Charles Mingus, ‘That music is here to tell the white world the wrongs they done in race.’ This most bitter of songs is indelibly associated with Holiday, who recorded it in 1939, and she did little to discourage the impression that grew over the years that she composed it herself. In fact she had at first resisted the song, as did her primary record label, Columbia, and she remained uneasy about audiences who demanded that she sing it. Its lyrics were read on the floor of Congress during ultimately unsuccessful efforts to pass federal anti-lynching legislation. Recorded by dozens of artists since, the song remains in the repertoire, still being sung and sampled over sixty years later.
This fascinating, beautifully crafted documentary provides a comprehensive account of the song’s composition and reveals that its writer, Abel Meeropol, who published music under the name of Lewis Allan, was a Jewish public school teacher who lived in the Bronx. Meeropol also composed The House I Live In, most famously performed in an Oscar-winning short by Frank Sinatra. He played another surprising role in American social history which filmmaker Joel Katz reveals with a narrative dexterity it would be churlish to pre-empt. — BG
"In analysing the song which Holiday recorded on April 20, 1939, the film brings in the history of lynching, the early civil rights movement and the relationship between Jewish songwriters and performers and black music. Best of all, it includes a devastating recitation of the lyric by Abbey Lincoln, and equally powerful performances by Holiday (from a 1958 BBC Broadcast) and Cassandra Wilson. Strange Fruit is a model of its kind." — Stephen Holden, NY Times