In Joel Katz's intriguing new documentary about the anti-lynching ballad, "Strange Fruit," an African American poet says she always assumed the songwriter was black.
Katz shared the same misconception before making his film, also titled "Strange Fruit," in the late 1990s. After all, the haunting 1938 tune was first performed by jazz diva Billie Holiday and soon became the anthem of the anti-lynching movement.
A pioneering infusion of social protest into pop music, the song conjured such gruesome images that it was promptly shunned by record companies and radio stations. The poetic but grotesque lyrics include a reference to the smell of magnolias mingling with the scent of burning flesh.
While the song's author, Lewis Allan, was listed in anthologies of black composers, he remained an enigmatic figure for Katz and others until a fascinating letter to the editor appeared in The New York Times Book Review in 1995. The letter, written by Robert and Michael Meeropol, aimed to clear up questions of authorship raised by a review of a Holiday biography. It also revealed a bombshell about Lewis Allan: He was actually a Bronx Jewish schoolteacher and union activist named Abel Meeropol.
Meeropol and his wife had adopted Robert and Michael after their birth parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed on spying charges in 1953, the letter revealed.
Â "It was a classic case of truth is stranger than fiction," Katz said by telephone from his office at New Jersey City University, where he is a media arts professor. "This letter was only three or four paragraphs long, but it read like a riveting little film script."
Katz's film, which at times unfolds like a thriller, merges interviews with the Meeropols and black scholars with photographs of lynching victims and footage of 1930s union strikes. One centerpiece is a gaunt Holiday performing "Strange Fruit" on the BBC in 1959, not long before her death at age 44.
The song has since been recorded by artists as diverse as Tori Amos and Sting and is now featured in a David Margolick book, "Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song" (Ecco Press, 2001), as well as in a nationally touring exhibit of lynching photography. Meanwhile, Katz's documentary -- funded in part by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture -- is appearing at Jewish film festivals (it comes to Orange County and the Skirball Cultural Center this month) and will air on PBS in April. "This is 'Strange Fruit's moment," said the writer-director, 44.
Katz was drawn to the subject because of his childhood experience with the black community. His liberal Jewish father, who had marched for open housing on Long Island, accepted a teaching job at all-black Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s. But his idealism soured for a time when he felt what he perceived to be reverse discrimination during the Black Power movement, his son said.
"That was my experience of black-Jewish relations," Katz said. "Working on 'Strange Fruit' was a way for me to heal."
As research, he studied the history of Jews in jazz and books on some 5,000 lynchings that took place in the South from the 1880s to the 1960s. He perused photographs of the victims -- who were often hung from a tree, set afire and mutilated -- taken as souvenirs by white observers. He also contacted Meeropol's sons by looking them up in the telephone directory in Springfield, Mass., where they were reported to live.
From the Meeropols, Katz learned that the author of "Strange Fruit" was actually a jaunty fellow with a thin mustache and a keen sense of humor. He discovered that "Lewis Allan" was a combination of the names Meeropol and his wife had chosen for their two stillborn sons. He also learned that the songwriter had an almost visceral aversion to racism.
Meeropol apparently penned "Strange Fruit" after viewing a photograph of a lynching victim in a civil rights magazine. "I wrote [it] because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetrate it," he once said.
According to Michael Meeropol, his father was prouder of "Strange Fruit" than "of all the things he ever did." He often played the song for his father when he was an Alzheimer's patient in a nursing home before his death in 1986. "It was the last thing he recognized," Michael Meeropol says in the film.
While the response to the movie on the Jewish festival circuit has been positive, some viewers made complaints such as saying "while the blacks have suffered, let's not forget how much we Jews have suffered, too."
Katz takes issue with that point of view. "It's a misunderstanding of who Abel Meeropol was," he told The Journal.
"What's remarkable about Meeropol was his ability to reach beyond Jewish suffering, because let's not forget he wrote the song just as the Holocaust was getting underway in 1938," Katz said. "He reached past his own pain and tried to empathize with another beleagured group. To me, that's one solution to black-Jewish tensions, because today it seems that everyone is just interested in their own pain."
Joel Katz will speak after the screening on Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets and more information, call (323) 655-8587. Â