I recently watched the powerful new documentary Billie via an exclusive screening by the 92nd Street Y.
Billie breathes life into nearly 50-year-old audiotapes of the interviews journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl conducted with Holiday’s contemporaries including Count Basie, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, singer Sylvia Syms and drummer Jo Jones. Archival materials and first-hand accounts shed light on systemic racism, racial segregation and the undertold story of her commitment to racial justice. The civil rights pioneer performed “Strange Fruit” at the end of every performance for 20 years despite FBI and police harassment. Bassist Charles Mingus said, “She was fighting equality before Martin Luther King. … That might be why the cops were against her too, not just junk.”
The special screening was followed by a Q&A with director James Erskine and executive producer Michele Smith, manager of the Billie Holiday Estate.
Billie will be released in theaters and on virtual cinema December 4. For updates, go here.
Last week, Mural Arts Philadelphia unveiled Portraits of Justice, a public art project to engage ordinary citizens in conversations about transforming the criminal justice system.
Jeffrey Krimes and Russell Craig’s powerful murals overlook the statue of Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner who had close ties with Italian mobsters and hung out at Black Mafia-owned joints on “The Strip” in West Philly. As mayor, Rizzo was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of police brutality that “shocks the conscience.”
The murals’ bricks represent barriers to reentry. With their close proximity to Rizzo, the background brings to mind the former police commissioner gloating that his officers ordered Black Panthers up against a brick wall and forced them to strip naked in front of the news cameras. The August 31, 1970 incident is one of the many reasons Rizzo is loathed by African Americans.
The murals are designed to empower the public to reimagine a criminal justice system that is more than “just us.” To my surprise, they helped me reimagine a Thomas Paine Plaza without the Rizzo statue. The sheer size of the murals and the facial expressions are a silent rebuke to the monument to racial injustice. Tellingly, the family-commissioned hunk of junk has to be caged to protect it from the public.