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[whitespace] Bitter Fruit

'Coloring the Silver Screen' program focuses on the history of African Americans in cinema and the strange-but-true history of Billie Holiday's haunting rendition of 'Strange Fruit'

By Mike Connor

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves, blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

"And now I'd like to sing a tune that was written especially for me," lied Billie Holiday during a performance for BBC TV in 1958. "It's titled 'Strange Fruit.'"

Less than a year later, Holiday, arguably the greatest jazz singer of all time, died at the age of 44 from heart and liver disease, but her legacy as a revolutionary music icon lives on in the hearts of legions of utterly devoted fans. While she's most famous for her impossibly beautiful, whiskey-soaked warbling and uniquely personal sense of phrasing, Holiday owes a considerable chunk of her fame to a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx.

So say the makers of Strange Fruit, a documentary film exploring the unique history of the graphic and melancholic song about lynchings in the "gallant South." Ambitious in scope, Strange Fruit explores the historical context in which the song was written and sets the record straight about who actually wrote it and why--inspired by a picture of a lynching, Abel Meeropol wrote it as a poem for a teacher's union publication. But producer/director Joel Katz also tries to get a handle on the legacy of the song and its cultural impact, asserting that Holiday's impassioned rendition served as a sort of pre-anthem for the civil rights movement.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Historical footage of protests and performances, along with artistic renderings of lynchings, establish a grounded yet disturbing picture of the cultural climate in the 1930s. The film is peopled with eloquent scholars, activists, artists and the family and friends of the late Abel Meeropol, the man who wrote "Strange Fruit" under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. His sons (who just so happen to be the adopted children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed as Soviet spies in 1953) and friends paint a portrait of a humorous, sensitive man and a progressive activist.

But perhaps the most valuable commentary comes from activists Abbey Lincoln and Dr. C.T. Vivan, whose historical knowledge and harrowing portraits of the South mirror the song's frank treatment of the subject of lynching, setting a dark tone for Holiday's emotional performance halfway through the film.

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Santa Cruz Film Festival 2003

Culture Shock: Raw, clever documentary 'Culture Jam' champions the 'joyful revolution' of ad busting, sign-jacking and all-around culture hacking as part of the Santa Cruz Film Festival Friday program.

Roller Ballsy: Roller queen Ann Calvello is still hell on wheels in 'Demon of the Derby.'

You Gave Me Shiva: A hyperkinetic NYC tour guide and a frightening vérité look at the terrorist attacks make for a fascinating SCFF program about Sept. 11.

Green Enos and Ham: 'Story of the Space Chimps' reveals what two unsung American heroes went through for the glory of the U.S. space program.

Let Us Prey: Cheri Lovedog's 'Prey for Rock & Roll' gets a homecoming on the SCFF's opening night.

Bitter Fruit: 'Coloring the Silver Screen' program focuses on the history of African Americans in cinema and the strange-but-true history of Billie Holiday's haunting rendition of 'Strange Fruit.'

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Strange Fruit flails a bit when it tries to justify Billie Holiday's connection to the song, as if the fact that Holiday would have a legitimate emotional connection to the subject of lynching was somehow under dispute. Is being human and African American not enough? But despite that unnecessary detour, the film is remarkably well put together and thorough in its exploration of this seminal 20th-century work.

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop.
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Note to high school teachers: Do whatever you have to do to get teenagers to see the "Coloring the Silver Screen" program at the SC Film Festival. Unfortunately, educational vaccinations against racism are still a must, as that most insidious of plagues still pollutes our culture. Or, as Michael Meeropol puts it ever so harshly, "Until the last racist is dead, 'Strange Fruit' is relevant."

Fast Forward

Also on the program is 18-year-old Preston Burger's African Americans on the Film Frontier, a 10-minute short that speeds through the entire history of African Americans in film at Ludicrous Speed. Which is not to say that the film is bad--it's actually very well researched and includes a wealth of archival footage. But the pacing and narration is deliriously dense and fast, covering everything from Edwin S. Porter's 1903 production of Uncle Tom's Cabin to D.W. Griffith's KKK-glorifying film The Birth of a Nation to The Jazz Singer in 1927, Hearts in Dixie in 1929, and on to actors like Stepin Fetchit, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Hatty McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award (best supporting actress for Gone With the Wind).

Moving into the glamorous days of 1943's Stormy Weather (starring Lena Horne and the acrobatic Nicholas brothers), Burger finishes his film with a discussion of Sidney Poitier's roles in No Way Out, Lilies of the Field (for which he won an Oscar) and A Raisin in the Sun, followed by a nod to African American stars and filmmakers like Denzel Washington and Spike Lee who are continually working to portray the African American experience on film.


Coloring the Silver Screen: Strange Fruit, African Americans on the Film Frontier and Jungle Jazz: Public Enemy #1 play on Thursday, June 5, at 7pm at the Rio Theatre as part of the Santa Cruz Film Festival. Tickets are available at Streetlight Records, the SC Civic Auditorium and Metro Santa Cruz.

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From the May 28-June 4, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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