Distributed by California Newsreel, Order Dept., PO Box 2284, South Burlington, VT 05407; 877-811-7495 (toll free)
Produced by Joel Katz
Directed by Joel Katz
VHS, color, 57 min.
Sr. High - Adult
African American Studies, Human Rights, History, Multicultural Studies
Reviewed by Patricia McGee, Coordinator of Media Services, Volpe Library & Media Center, Tennessee Technological University
Strange Fruit is more than the story of the hauntingly evocative song from the 1930s that became the anthem of the anti-lynching movement. Joel Katz has used the history of the song as a metaphor to capture the struggle against racism and the spirit of an era. While the song is indelibly associated with Billie Holiday, in fact Abel Meeropol, a Jewish American school teacher from the Bronx, wrote the lyrics first as a poem. He published it in The New York Teacher, a union magazine, and later set the words to music. Meeropol’s wife Anne first performed it at the New York Teacher’s Union Theater Arts Cabaret.
Billie Holiday first became acquainted with the song when she was singing at Café Society, the first truly integrated nightclub in New York City. Since Columbia Records was reluctant to record the song, Milt Gabler of Commodore Records recorded it in April 1939, using the band that was accompanying Holiday at Café Society. In spite of its controversial subject matter and the reluctance of radio stations to play it, the song became very popular. In her 1956 autobiography Holiday implied that Meeropol had written the lyrics for her and that she and Sonny White, her accompanist had written the melody, a claim that Meeropol fiercely contested. “I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ because I hate lynching and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”
The Meeropols were committed progressive activists and members of the Communist Party in the 1930s. In 1940 Abel was called before a New York State committee investigating the influence of the Communist Party in the Teacher’s Union and asked if he had written the song at the instigation of the Communists. In the mid-40s Meeropol finally left teaching for a career as a Hollywood writer. Probably his best known piece from that time is The House I Live In, an Academy Award winning short starring Frank Sinatra. Meeropol, however, was furious because his lines encouraging racial integration were edited out of the film. His was a life committed to the ongoing struggle for social justice. In 1953 Abel and Anne Meeropol adopted the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the two convicted spies were executed, and the warmly loving recollections of the Meeropol sons are a leitmotiv flowing through out this exceptional documentary. The film is a fascinating blend of archival footage and newsreels, still photos, and contemporary footage. The interviews with the Meeropol children, the colleagues of Abel and Anne, poets, musicians, historians, and civil rights activists add great depth to the story of a song that moved beyond entertainment to political statement. As Michael Meeropol declared, “Until the last racist is dead, Strange Fruit is relevant.”