Film Review, Strange Fruit
The interconnectedness between arts and social issues is embodied in the song, “Strange Fruit”. A film of the same name documents the history and effects of “Strange Fruit” and opens with Abbey Lincoln, an American jazz vocalist and performer, reading the lyrics. Billie Holiday popularized the song with her emotive version recorded in 1939. The song poetically describes the horror of a lynching of a black man in the South.
A Jewish teacher and activist, Abel Meerpol, originally wrote the song as a poem after seeing a photograph of a lynching. He set the poem to music and performed it at a teacher’s union meeting in New York where it was brought to the attention of the manager of Café Society, a club where Billie Holiday performed. Holiday was introduced to Meerpol and agreed to record the song, and after hesitation from her record label, “Strange Fruit” was recorded by Billie Holiday. The song sparked activism for black communities across the country and in Europe.
The film examines the history of lynching. Dr. Vivian, a Reverend and civil rights leader, speaks of the belief that black people are not human and would be hanged for no reason, killed and mutilated, often times surrounded by cheering crowds. The film brings to light the savagery and terror of lynching and highlights those who fought against it. Activists who struggled for racial justice were pared in the film with labor rights activists, anti-Fascist groups, teachers, and unions. Unions, Leftist organizations, and popular culture were important for the anti-lynching movement helping to gain momentum and reach communities outside of the black experience.
Abel Meerpol wrote thousands of songs and poems, including, “The House I live in.” Meerpol was very proud of “Strange Fruit”. The song eventually caused him to be investigated for suspicion of Communist ties. He was accused of being paid by Communists to write the song.
Strange Fruit has gone on to be performed by a multitude of other artists, including Nina Simone, Tori Amos, Jeff Buckley, UB40, Josh White, and The Gun Club.