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Strange Fruit (2002)
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by Natasha Theobald

"Raw Truth"
4 stars

"Strange Fruit" tells the story behind the song that "Time" magazine deemed "Song of the Millenium." From the pen of Lewis Allan to the voice of Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit" transcended politics and even art to speak to the core of human experience, as well as about some of America's most horrific history.

Written in the late 1930's, "Strange Fruit" found its way to a young singer named Billie Holiday who was, at that time, appearing at Cafe Society in New York. She began to perform the song, communicating its message in the most unwavering terms. The song contains lyrics about "Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze," about the tendency, at that time, of groups of Christian, white people to band together to torture and murder African-American people under the guise of justice and/or righteousnous, as unbelievable as that may sound.

Lynching began to occur in America, according to the movie, in the 1890's, around the time that African-Americans began to make some political and economic gains. The act was designed to promote fear and to keep people of color in check, to keep them from achieving and succeeding. Men and women were hanged. Their bodies were ripped open, burned and skinned, mutilated in unspeakable ways. This is the act depicted in the song, wherein "Southern trees bear a strange fruit."

Interestingly, the song was written by a Jewish-American school teacher from the Bronx. His pen name was Lewis Allan, but his real name was Abel Meeropol. As the movie explores his life and work, we learn that it is possible for one person to make some sort of difference in the world. Abel Meeropol is just one man, but the thread of his life seems to have touched history in varying and meaningful ways throughout. "Strange Fruit" was just part of his contribution. (I'll let the rest unfold for you in the same surprising and satisfying manner that it did for me while watching.)

The movie explores the lyrics of the song, the lives of the people who brought it to the public, and the legacy it maintains as a song of "protest and mourning." The viewer learns about a perceived link between Communism and Civil Rights activism, as well as the commonality of the experiences of Jewish and African-American people throughout the history of America.

Director Joel Katz does a remarkable job of keeping the interest of the audience. Though this is a relatively short film, it has enough emotion and heft to make it truly memorable. The song is played over and over, maybe once or twice too often, but it is interesting to hear the different styles and versions that have been tried in the decades since it was first recorded. By the end, as I watched Cassandra Wilson sing it for a final time, I was still awed and moved by the power and poetry of it. Then, as the filmmaker left the audience with images that served to remind how far we still have to go to reach a time when the song evokes only pain as a distant memory, I truly understood, as much as I ever could, the journey that Americans face together.

This film is not preachy or didactic. The goal, it seems, was just to illuminate art and history and the difference that a single voice can make in both.

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originally posted: 05/13/03 09:18:55
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Directed by
  Joel Katz

Written by
  Joel Katz

  Amiri Baraka
  Don Byron
  Billie Holliday
  Abbey Lincoln
  Pete Seeger
  Cassandra Wilson

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