Strange Fruit

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.