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Lee Daniels on ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’

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Lee Daniels on 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

At the intersection of artistry and addiction, director Lee Daniels found his connection with late blues icon Billie Holiday. 

“I had to tell her story because it lived in me on so many different levels,” Daniels told The Post. “Not just as an artist, but as an artist who also struggled with addiction.”

Daniels, 61, pulls back the curtain on the troubled 1940s jazz singer’s simultaneous battles with substance abuse and the federal government in his new film, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” out Friday on Hulu. The movie stars Andra Day as Billie Holiday, who has already been nominated for two Golden Globes for the performance.

The harrowing tale of Holiday’s traumatic childhood and tumultuous life in the spotlight has been famously recounted in the 1972 classic “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring Diana Ross, and on Broadway in the musical “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” led by Audra McDonald in 2014.

But in his tribute to the legendary songstress, Daniels chose to focus less on Holiday’s troubled past, and more on her ill-fated relationship with federal agent Jimmy Fletcher.

“It’s not a biopic,” Daniels said. “It’s really an espionage love story.”

The affair started when Fletcher was tapped by openly racist Federal Bureau of Narcotics Chief Harry Anslinger to take Holiday down for her heroin use. 

But Anslinger’s true motive for targeting Holiday was to stop her from singing her anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit.”

‘She called out social injustice when no one else would.’

Lee Daniels

“I get chills thinking about those lyrics,” Daniels said. “They’re so powerful because she called out social injustice when no one else would.”

“Strange Fruit” was originally a poem written by Jewish high school teacher and civil rights activist Abel Meeropol in 1937. The Bronx native penned the verse after seeing a haunting picture of a double lynching, and set the words to music for Holiday to begin performing at racially integrated New York City nightclubs in 1939.

The protest song infamously exposed the violence committed by white people who murdered black Americans by hanging them from trees in the segregated South. 

Amid the spectacle of Holiday’s opioid abuse, extramarital liaisons — including an intimate relationship with actress Tallulah Bankhead — and repeated stints in jail on drug charges, the movie reaches a climax: a lynching scene, in which Holiday stumbles on a terrible crime. 

“[The lynching scene] was the hardest thing I’ve ever shot before in my life.”

Lee Daniels

“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever shot before in my life,” said Daniels, who also directed the Hollywood blockbusters “Precious” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

In the scene, Holiday wanders off of her tour bus and sees children crying in front of a burning cross, a signature of the Ku Klux Klan. Their father helplessly tries rescuing their mother as her limp body hangs from a branch. 

At that moment, Holiday vows to continue performing “Strange Fruit,” despite the FBI’s attempts to silence her. 

“She didn’t want to be a hero,” Daniels said. “She would not think of herself as a civil rights leader even though she was one. She just knew she had to sing this song.”

Daniels and Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks wrapped the film before the nationwide demand for social justice, spurred by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, in 2020. Daniels said he hopes the movie inspires the Senate to pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, legislation that would officially designate lynching a hate crime. 

‘I want this film to open up conversations that promote change.’

Lee Daniels

“I want this film to open up conversations that promote change,” Daniels said. “If we are doing the work to address systemic racism, I think we will have a better America.”

Holiday’s call for change, “Strange Fruit,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978, declared the “Song of the Century,” by Time in 1999 and added into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002.

As for Daniels’ homage to the late Lady Day, who died of cirrhosis handcuffed to a hospital bed a few months before he was born in 1959, the filmmaker says she approved of the film. 

“On the last day of shooting, I dreamt I saw Ms. Holiday sitting in a 1950s car,” Daniels said. 

“I asked her, ‘Is it okay that I’m doing your movie?’ 

She said, ‘Are you going to do me right?,’ and I said, ‘I think so.’ Then she smiled.”

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‘There was a lot of silly fabulosity on set’

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Dascha Polanco and Daphne Rubin-Vega hadn’t seen each other in more than a year — after spending months at the hip filming “In the Heights,” the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical, now in theaters. So, they were a bit giddy when they reunited last week to pose for photos at the East Village salon Treehouse Social Club.

“I gave her a lot of piggyback rides,” Polanco told The Post of their time shooting on location in Manhattan two years ago. (The movie was supposed to come out last summer, but was delayed a year due to the pandemic.) The petite Rubin-Vega confirmed their antics. “There was a lot of silly fabulosity on set,” she added with a laugh.

“In the Heights” centers around a tight-knit Latino community in Washington Heights, and Polanco and Rubin-Vega — along with “Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s” Stephanie Beatriz — play its scene-stealing salon ladies. These fabulously turned-out women, in their skin-tight pants and knotted turbans and gloriously long nails, know everything about everyone on their block and have opinions about them all, too. They are the neighborhood’s gossipy, meddlesome tias, as well as its glue and conscience. Rubin-Vega is Daniela, the dynamo salon-owner; Polanco, Cuca, one of her employees and BFFs. 

Dascha Polanco’s  (seated) and Daphne Rubin-Vega’s characters work as upper Manhattan hairdressers in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new movie musical about Washington Heights.
Dascha Polanco’s (seated) and Daphne Rubin-Vega’s characters work as upper Manhattan hairdressers in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new movie musical about Washington Heights.
Tamara Beckwith

Polanco, 38, and Rubin-Vega, 51, immediately grasped the importance of the salon ladies in the film — as well as in Latin culture. Both women immigrated to the US from Latin America when they were children, and both have powerful memories related to their textured manes. 

Polanco massaged her Dominican mother’s hair with oil in their home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Her mom was a licensed cosmetologist, and though she never practiced professionally, she imparted her knowledge and expertise to her daughter.

“She taught me so much as far as the respect that you should have for your hair,” Polanco said. “Hair for her meant strength, meant identity, meant bonding, meant power.”

“It’s close to your head, which is close to God,” the Panamanian-born Rubin-Vega said, recalling how she used to wrap her locks in Bustelo coffee cans to smooth them out. “It really is the container of sacred things,” added the actress, who grew up in Greenwich Village with her Afro-Latina mother and Jewish stepfather.

Polanco and Rubin-Vega had never met before being asked to improvise together during a callback audition for “In the Heights” in 2019. Polanco, who had just finished filming the final season of “Orange Is the New Black,” hadn’t been in a musical before, while Rubin-Vega is a Tony Award winner for her role as the original Mimi in “Rent.” But the connection was instant.

Daphne Rubin-Vega: Paisley Print Silk Shirt,” $830 at etro. “Paisley Maxi Skirt,” $960 at etro. “Leather and Metal Belt with Pendants,” $1,110 at etro. “Cape 70 Butterfly Blue Suede Shoe,” $795 at Jimmy Choo. “Saucer Hoops,” $216 at Lady Grey jewelry. Dascha Polanco: “Red Silk Midi Dress,” $4,700 at Fendi. “Leather Slingbacks with High Heel,” $995 at Fendi. “Dome Ridge Hoops,” $156 at Lady Grey jewelry. “Wave Ring,” $625 at Jeannie Kim.

Tamara Beckwith

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Daphne Rubin-Vega: Paisley Print Silk Shirt,” $830 at etro. “Paisley Maxi Skirt,” $960 at etro. “Leather and Metal Belt with Pendants,” $1,110 at etro. “Cape 70 Butterfly Blue Suede Shoe,” $795 at Jimmy Choo. “Saucer Hoops,” $216 at Lady Grey jewelry. Dascha Polanco: “Red Silk Midi Dress,” $4,700 at Fendi. “Leather Slingbacks with High Heel,” $995 at Fendi. “Dome Ridge Hoops,” $156 at Lady Grey jewelry. “Wave Ring,” $625 at Jeannie Kim.

Tamara Beckwith

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“We had such a good time,” said Polanco. The two further bonded during the months of vocal and choreography “bootcamp,” and when they started filming on the streets of Washington Heights, they were kindred spirits. 

“Shooting in the summer in the Heights was very fun,” said Polanco. She, Rubin-Vega and Beatriz raided the neighborhood’s beauty supply stores and snapped up $10 dresses at the boutiques lining the sidewalks. “People opened up their bathrooms to us when we would be sitting on their stoops filming all day,” said Rubin-Vega. “They would say, ‘Just don’t eat my food!’” (For grub, they’d go to Cuban hotspot El Floridita.)

The process was exhilarating, but also scary for musical newcomer Polanco.

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Versace Tresor de La Mer Pleated Midi Dress, $1,550 at Versace. Versace Plisse Nappa Leather Mules, $995 at Versace. Versace Gold necklace with starfish pendant, $350 at Versace. Versace Pink choker with gold medusa charm, $625 at Versace. Versace Pink crystal starfish ring, $325 at Versace.

Tamara Beckwith

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Versace Tresor de La Mer Pleated Midi Dress, $1,550 at Versace. Versace Plisse Nappa Leather Mules, $995 at Versace. Versace Gold necklace with starfish pendant, $350 at Versace. Versace Pink choker with gold medusa charm, $625 at Versace. Versace Pink crystal starfish ring, $325 at Versace.

Tamara Beckwith

060721Heights30TB

Versace Tresor de La Mer Pleated Midi Dress, $1,550 at Versace. Versace Plisse Nappa Leather Mules, $995 at Versace. Versace Gold necklace with starfish pendant, $350 at Versace. Versace Pink choker with gold medusa charm, $625 at Versace. Versace Pink crystal starfish ring, $325 at Versace.

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“I was so nervous,” the actress said. “You know, having to perform and record in front of everyone, and — this is something that I had to struggle with throughout — wondering, ‘Am I gonna look fat if I dance this way?’ I kept thinking, ‘Oh my God, do I look crazy?’ That’s when I would push Daphne aside and we would have a little spiritual circle.”

“We would pray on it, ” Rubin-Vega added. ‘We would just hold hands and hold a thought — just center and hold a good thought.” Meanwhile, the Broadway vet had her own worries: namely, her character’s flamboyant costumes.

“There was a point when I wondered, ‘Does Daniela wear a bra?’” Rubin-Vega recalled. “I was like, I don’t think she wears a bra. Because I knew my character is this human being who doesn’t care what [other people] think and who shows out, but that was disturbing to Daphne the actor, because this film is gonna live for a long, long time.”

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Valentino Spring Summer 2021 Look 22 Dress, $6500 at Valentino. Joanna Laura Constantine Statement Wave Earrings with Pave, $388 at Valentino. Jimmy Choo Madeline Belt Dark Tan/Light Gold Calf Leather w/Metal Buckle, $425 at Jimmy Choo. Jimmy Choo Bay 90 Ballet Pink Nappa Leather Shoe, $995 at Jimmy Choo.

Tamara Beckwith

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Valentino Spring Summer 2021 Look 22 Dress, $6500 at Valentino. Joanna Laura Constantine Statement Wave Earrings with Pave, $388 at Valentino. Jimmy Choo Madeline Belt Dark Tan/Light Gold Calf Leather w/Metal Buckle, $425 at Jimmy Choo. Jimmy Choo Bay 90 Ballet Pink Nappa Leather Shoe, $995 at Jimmy Choo.

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Heights

Valentino Spring Summer 2021 Look 22 Dress, $6500 at Valentino. Joanna Laura Constantine Statement Wave Earrings with Pave, $388 at Valentino. Jimmy Choo Madeline Belt Dark Tan/Light Gold Calf Leather w/Metal Buckle, $425 at Jimmy Choo. Jimmy Choo Bay 90 Ballet Pink Nappa Leather Shoe, $995 at Jimmy Choo.

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“We knew that this was bigger than us, that everyone was dancing and working and pushing for the same purpose,” added Polanco. 

That purpose? Representing Latin-American culture in all its glorious forms: from its dances (flamenco to hip-hop) and food (ropa vieja to piraguas) to its diverse array of people. 

“I had this feeling watching the film, and seeing this representation on screen, of ‘Oh, I didn’t know that I was missing it so much,’” Rubin-Vega said. “I realized that the absence of my physical self and presence and experience on film for so long says something: it says that I matter less. To see this film is not even to say, ‘Oh, I matter more.’ It’s just to say, ‘Hey, you: you matter, period.’ That is incredibly powerful.”


Photos: Tamara Beckwith/NY Post; Stylist: Elise Sandvik/See Management; Hair: Corey Tuttle/Exclusive Artists using R+CO, Tomo Nakajima/Sally Hershberger; Makeup: Juliette Perreux/The Wall Group using MAC Cosmetics, Andréa Tiller/Tracey Mattingly using MAC Cosmetics; Stylist Assistant: Lutèce Gault; Location: Treehouse Social Club @treehousesocialclub.nyc 190 First Ave., ground floor.

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Petition to end ‘culturally insensitive’ ‘Late Late Show’ bit

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Petition to end 'culturally insensitive' 'Late Late Show' bit

They want him to pull the ripcord on this “insensitive” segment.

Critics are petitioning James Corden to retire the “Spill Your Guts” segment of the “Late Late Show,” which they deemed “culturally offensive” to Asians.

“Not only is this segment incredibly culturally offensive and insensitive, but it also encourages anti-Asian racism,” reads the petition, which currently boasts over 12,000 signatures on Change.org. It calls for the removal of the controversial segment, in which the talk show hosts forces celebrities to answer difficult questions or eat “gross” foods. A smorgasbord of A-list celebs has appeared on the “Spill Your Guts,” including Justin Bieber, Harry Styles, Jimmy Kimmel and Demi Moore.

The campaign was started by TikTok user Kim Saira, who went viral for lambasting the program in a viral video.

“The foods that are presented are meant to be ‘gross,’ as they are supposed to encourage the guest to answer his questions instead,” Saira described in the online document. She went on to observe that many of the supposedly disgusting dishes featured on “SYG” — like fetal duck egg, 100-year-old-eggs and chicken feet — are “regularly eaten by Asian people.”

Indeed, balut — or embryonic duck egg — is prized in the Philippines while many Southern Chinese epicures consider 100-year-old eggs and chicken kickers part of a complete breakfast.

The TikTok star wrote that the “Carpool Karaoke” creator frequently calls these delicacies “disgusting” and “horrific,” which she claims perpetuates “anti-Asian racism.”

“So many Asian Americans are consistently bullied and mocked for their native foods, and this segment amplifies and encourages it,” lamented Saira, who deemed the program particularly tone-deaf in light of the uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes.

As penance for the insensitive segment, the petition is demanding that Corden completely “change the food presented on his show to something else, or remove the segment entirely.”

It also calls for the British entertainer to issue a formal apology as well as donate to organizations working to help Asian-owned restaurants and small businesses.

“We are holding James Corden and ‘The Late Late Show’ accountable for their actions, and perpetual harm this segment causes to Asian American communities,” Saira wrote.

The petitions signers seconded her sentiment.

“This needs to be changed to be not be [sic] ignorant and culturally insensitive,” wrote one critic. “Please be more creative and considerate going forward.”

“I don’t support TV ratings through cultural mockery,” fumed another.

One enraged commenter wrote, “Who deemed these foods disgusting? A white guy from [Great Britain]? Okay.”

This isn’t the first time a talk show host has been accused of being insensitive. Last year, Jimmy Kimmel was asked to apologize for resurfaced blackface sketches that aired on Comedy Central’s “The Man Show” (1999-2004), which included him playing NBA star Karl Malone and a parody of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” called “Oprah Jimfrey.”

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Letters to the Editor — June 11, 2021

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Letters to the Editor — June 11, 2021

The Issue: Maya Wiley’s call to reduce NYPD funding, even as she benefits from private security.

Brilliant mayoral candidate Maya Wiley declared that, if elected mayor, she will defund the NYPD by a staggering $1 billion (“Not Maya problem!” June 8).

However, this candidate has neglected to say that she lives in a posh Brooklyn neighborhood that is patrolled and protected by a private security firm.

Wiley wants to reduce the manpower of those who are there to protect you and me, but she considers herself too elite for the everyday police protection we depend on.

Leave it to the No. #1 hypocritical phony, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, to back Wiley and her crazy liberal agenda.

I say, forget Wiley. New Yorkers deserve a heck of a lot better than this.

Alan Brooks

Brooklyn

Wow, did I just have my eyes opened: A politician, in this case one running for mayor, is a hypocrite. Quite a revelation.

Wiley has private hired police protection while campaigning for defunding the police for the rest of us. She said her partner paid for it.

While public safety and the police is the No. 1 issue, there are multitudes of these other issues that will require strong leadership.

Let’s hear a real leader step up and talk about what we mere mortals are talking about to our neighbors, our children and the people who care. The politicians’ silence is deafening.

Emanuel Gross

Manhattan

The Post’s cover says it all: “Not Maya problem.”

This happens all the time — our great politicians say one thing, like “defund the police,” meanwhile they live under a blanket of security.

How can you defund the police when crime is so rampant? How many more young innocent children will be killed, just because you are trying to get a vote?

Why not go into these neighborhoods and listen to the people along with the community leaders — they are begging for more police protection. They don’t have the luxury of a gated community.

Sam King

Manhattan

This is exactly the kind of behavior from our politicians that turns off the American public from voting. What blatant hypocrisy.

Wiley’s actions are in direct contrast to that of candidate Eric Adams. Thank God there are still level-headed, smart people running for office. Let’s just hope he wins, and people like her do not.

Steve Preziosa

Deptford, NJ

The most direct path to seizing guns is, and always has been, stop-and-frisk. But that tactic will not be supported by the faint-hearted candidates for mayor.

Just the thought offends the sensibilities of politicians who pander to hold their jobs. They, of course, are not at risk. Candidate Wiley’s residential area is protected by a private security service.

Stop-and-frisk, denounced because of low yields, has merit because it saves lives.

Two tools — the anti-crime units and stop-and -risk, both aborted by this mayor — had a direct negative impact on gun violence in our city. They must be reinstated.

Phil Serpico

Queens

How comfortable and reassuring it must be to someone like Wiley that, after a hard day, she can return to her $2.7 million home, guarded by private security.

In the wake of the worst mayor in living memory, the election of another progressive liberal agitator is exactly what the city doesn’t need.

The election is a chance to show support for law and order and the police. In the end, voters get what they deserve.

Robert Mangi

Westbury

Wiley has an asinine platform of defunding the police, as she peers out of her lavish brownstone ivory tower with full security protection, while the neighborhoods surrounding her are rife with crime.

She’s just another social-justice warrior with total disrespect and disregard for law and order.

The plethora of buffoons running for mayor is staggering.

Kevin Judge

Naples, Fla.

Want to weigh in on today’s stories? Send your thoughts (along with your full name and city of residence) to [email protected]. Letters are subject to editing for clarity, length, accuracy and style.

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