Strange Fruit

Kirsten Markson

A meditation on the song of the same name that chillingly relates the story of a lynching.

Strange Fruit

Airtime: 8 April 2003
Cast: Cast (as themselves): Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Pete Seeger, Amiri Baraka, Michael Rosenberg, Robert Rosenberg
Subtitle: Premiere date
Network: PBS
Creator: Joel Katz

Joel Katz's Strange Fruit is a meditation on the song of the same name that chillingly relates the story of a lynching. Written by a Jewish American from the Bronx and famously recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday, the song is presented in the film as the root of the union between American activism and arts. From this protest song, the filmmakers suggest, came all others. While this might not be true, there is no doubt that "Strange Fruit" occupies a unique place in American music. In making the film, Katz not only focuses on Billie Holiday's place in the history of American protest songs, but also Abel Meeropol, the little known teacher and Communist activist who wrote and scored the classic tune.

Katz's documentary presents a compelling investigation of the connections between the anti-lynching (and later Civil Rights) movements and the struggle of the American Communist Party, of which Meeropol was a member, through the writing and performance of "Strange Fruit." The rise in popularity of the Communist Party in the United States in the 1930s coexisted with a continuing efflorescence of African American arts and anti-segregation activism, especially in New York City.

While the two movements existed concurrently, they were separated geographically, with Communist activity centered in immigrant populations in the Bronx and African American activism in Harlem. This gulf, as well as a perceived ideological one, are two of many reasons the connections between the two movements have remained largely unexamined in mainstream histories. In Strange Fruit, Katz underlines these connections by focusing on the making of a song.

He centers his investigation on the meeting between Holiday and Meeropol. The story goes that Meeropol approached Holiday to record the song at the Café Society, the only integrated club in New York at the time. The club, located in Greenwich Village, featured both European style cabaret and American jazz. Holiday agreed to record the song, but was turned down by several major labels, until she went to Commodore Records. Then, though radio stations then refused to play the song, the record sold rapidly, ultimately reaching #16 on the charts.

"Strange Fruit" helped sustain Billy Holiday's career and secured her place in protest song history. Abel Meeropol's place in that history, however, has been obscured by general misconceptions about the authorship of the song, as well as Holiday's own assertions in later years, including her claim that the song was written specifically for her and that she put it to music. Neither is true. Meeropol himself scored the song and his wife Anne was the first to perform it in the late 1930s.

The Meeropols are involved in another aspect of complicated U.S. history: they were members of the group of American Communists that included Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. When the Rosenbergs were executed for treason, the Meeropols adopted their two sons, Robert and Michael. They are both featured prominently in the documentary, providing anecdotes about the political and personal details of life with their adoptive parents. One such tidbit is the fact that Abel Meeropol was often amused that his name was sometimes included in anthologies of great African American songwriters. At the same time that he was able to laugh at this error, they recall, he did insist on being given credit for the song.

The two brothers also speak directly to the often fractured relationship between African Americans and Jewish Americans. Robert and Michael point out that their parents, and other American Jewish activists, joined the anti-lynching and Civil Rights movements because these struggles echoed their own ongoing fight against oppression and racism.

While it's not always clear how and why the relationship between the two groups has deteriorated so significantly since the end of the Civil Rights movement, the film proposes that the history of "Strange Fruit" might help to bridge present rifts. The artistic partnership between Holiday and Meeropol, however strained at times, is symbolic of the potential for two activists from different backgrounds to work together to promote religious and political freedom, and freedom from the fear of racial persecution.

With this collaboration in mind, it is striking that poet and playwright Amiri Baraka is one of the film's "talking heads." Baraka has regained notoriety in the past year for his poem "Somebody Blew Up America," perceived to be anti-Semitic, as it refers to reports of Israel's previous knowledge of the 9-11 attacks. Baraka's presence in a film that reveals a creative and political union of African and Jewish Americans complicates the reactionary labeling of him as anti-Semitic. Indeed, in the same 9-11 poem that caused such controversy, he compares the Holocaust and the execution of the Rosenbergs to atrocities suffered by African Americans.

In staging a public conversation between African American and Jewish American activists with the history of "Strange Fruit" as a background, Katz's film both uncovers history and illuminates the present. In bringing together these various issues -- including racism, America's unexamined history of lynching, and the relationship between African and Jewish American activism -- Katz suggests that they are intimately connected. This may sound simplistic, but it is an effective strategy for posing questions and inciting discussion. Strange Fruit offers historical facts and productive commentary. To its credit, though, the film doesn't offer simple answers to any of the questions it raises.





'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.