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‘Billie’ Tells Tormented Story of Billie Holliday
Thursday, February 25, 2021


Long before Black Lives Matter, jazz and swing music singer Billie Holiday created a wave of controversy as she tried to raise awareness of the injustices that Black Americans were suffering with her chilling song “Strange Fruit.”

The protest song was based on a poem about a lynching written by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. It started out:

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Lady Day sang it, she said, because it reminded her how her father was denied medical treatment for a fatal lung disorder because of racial prejudice.

The Sun Valley Museum of Arts will screen “Billie,” a new documentary on the talented but tormented singer at 4 and 7 p.m. today—Thursday, Feb. 25--at the Magic Lantern Cinemas in Ketchum.

The film features footage of her performances and is told from the perspective of the journals, notes and audio recordings of journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl who did eight years of exhaustive research to create the definite biography of Billie Holiday in the 1970s.

“The research that Kuehl undertook is almost like an archaeological dig, recovering the voices of Count Basie, Charles Mingus, John Hammond and moreall being interviewed about Lady Day,” said Kristine  Bretall, who curated the SVMoA’s film series.

This is the last of several films being shown in conjunction with SVMoA’s BIG IDEA project “Deeds Not Words,” which celebrates the ways women have worked for social change.

“I’m excited about the breadth of films we’re sharing with the community,” said Bretall. “Unlike the biographies of many famous men, the stories of women changemakers are often inextricable from their private lives and personal experiences–both of which drive them to make change so they can live their lives to the fullest. Can you tell the story and influence of Billie Holiday without her having suffered discrimination in her personal life? Can you tell the story of Toni Morrison and ignore the fact that her grandfather could read–and that in his lifetime it had been illegal for him to do so?”

Tickets are $10 for SVMoA members and $12 for nonmembers, available at or by calling 208-9491. Social distancing and face mask protocols are in place at the theater.


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