Strange Fruit

Captivating documentary traces the journey of the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, written by a Bronx schoolteacher, popularized by Billie Holliday (pictured), and immortalized by the civil-rights struggle. Compactly tells the tale of the song's creator while also following his creation's own unique history. Directed by Joel Katz. (See box.) (57 mins.; NR) Paired with One Girl Against the Mafia, about a Sicilian girl who dared to testify against la Cosa Nostra. (56 mins.; NR) — BILGE EBIRI

Opens November 6
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Spotlight: Diretor Joel Katz
"It still amazes me how twelve lines can change the world," says Joel Katz, the director of Strange Fruit, a documentary about the thirties anti-lynching protest song. Written by Abel Meeropol, the somber elegy was claimed as her own by Billie Holiday, who spread its chilling vision with the force of a gospel anthem. Through interviews and archives, Katz touches on the great stories of twentieth-century America: race and religion, McCarthyism, jazz, and New York from Greenwich Village to Harlem. "If you focus on one tiny object and keep peeling away layers, you can wind up discovering an entire world," the New Jersey City University professor says. Katz also found that his own life resonated with that of Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx: "My father taught at Howard for twenty years and started out very idealistic, but eventually, as a white Jewish man from Brooklyn, he became bitter. The song's story is a much more hopeful model than my own for black-Jewish relations." The song's history, which was also told in last year's unrelated novel by David Margolick, takes unexpected turns: Meeropol, for example, adopted the two sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the American Communists executed in 1953. "The story reads like a script," Katz says. "I set out to explore the potential for art to activate social change and wound up discovering this new world, which came from the Bronx."

Photo by Charles Peterson, Courtesy of Don Peterson.

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