Billie showcases the depth and complexities of Billie Holiday’s character and iconic artistry in the face of adversity.
Shianne Brown is an experienced producer and recent director with a passion to tell the stories of people in extraordinary situations and has worked extensively since 2016 building her way up from researcher to producer and now director. Her directorial debut was Channel 4 documentary Respect Me, I’m a Doctor which looked into the treatment of Black female doctors during the COVID 19 Pandemic and the racially charged abuse they received from patients and colleagues.
Brown’s latest project Billie that she co-produced alongside James Erskine (Waterloo Road) offers fascinating insight into who the world-famous jazz singer was through a selection of never-before-heard intimate interviews with former associates and friends Tony Bennett, Charles Mingus, Sylvia Syms, and Count Basie as well as Holiday’s high school friends and those closest to her.
We spoke to Brown about her love for Billie Holiday and her need to tell the stories of women who have never really been heard.
Please introduce yourself…
Shianne Brown, I’m a producer / director based in London. I grew up in South London and had a west Indian upbringing having a Jamaican mum.
Please share a word or sentence that best describes your life right now?
When did you first fall in love with Billie Holiday?
I was around 15 or 16 and used to go to car boot sales and came across a CD of Billie Holiday. I didn’t know much about her; only had heard of the song Strange Fruit. I listened to the album and fell in love with a unique voice that I had never heard.
The documentary is timely, Billie was a major player in the Jazz scene during a time of political unrest and injustice towards Black people in America. Captured memorably on her song Strange Fruit. We are experiencing the same problems more than 60 years later. How do you think Billie would react to the fight has not ended?
I think she would be disappointed but not surprised. She was aware of the racialised injustices of black people in America, when she was singing Strange Fruit, she was living during the Jim Crow era. Strange Fruit touches on the disease of racial hatred, “blood at the roots” this line from the song speaks of the violence and horror of racism and slavery in the U.S.
How objective is the film and do you feel the audience will better understand the complexities of Billie Holiday through the many interviews shown?
We have included interviews from people who have a direct relationship with Billie and were first-hand witnesses, it’s not about speculation but their opinion of what they saw happening. There is no, one answer to who Billie was, she was a complicated and extraordinary vocalist, and black woman and I think people watching the film will be able to understand the complexities of her story and experiences through these interviews.
You are passionate about celebrating and uplifting female voices, telling stories that often get overlooked. What is it about a story that compels you to investigate it?
I’m always interested in stories where people feel like they’ve been silenced or told incorrectly. I gravitate towards stories where you feel human emotion, empathy, and connection, I think this is also why I read a lot of non-fiction and autobiographies.
What stories do you find yourself drawn to?
I’d love to make more music documentaries and more films centered around the female story, celebrating the achievements of women who have come before us, particularly black women. Having grown up in an environment, where my mum and grandparents arrived in the U.K. during the Windrush, there are so many stories and experiences that I’d love to explore.
Your directorial debut for Channel 4, Respect Me, I’m a Doctor documented the experiences of black female doctors who face racism whilst trying to save lives, and their support for the Black Lives Matter protests. How did you go about developing the documentary?
I was asked to work on the series Take your Knee off My Neck, which was produced by Milk and Honey Productions, a female-owned company run by Lucy Pilkington. I was asked to make a film as a response to the BLM protests which were happening here and across the world. At the time of making the film, we would be standing outside our doors clapping for the NHS, and black doctors and nurses were dying disproportionately of COVID and I thought why is this happening? So I decided to talk to some black doctors and nurses. I wanted to hear their experiences of racism whilst saving lives and if they thought Britain was clapping for them.
Were you shocked by the experiences of the doctors or is it just the norm to hear these stories from Black professionals?
I was shocked but wasn’t surprised. Some of the stories were disheartening and made you question a lot. How people could refuse care because their doctor was black. Black doctors have trained for years to help us just like everybody else, they should be treated equally and not have to worry about racism on a daily basis. What I did find alarming was that it wasn’t just from patients but also from white colleagues, this just showed how racism permeates across all industries and festers in society.
What are your thoughts on the backlash around Sainsbury’s latest Christmas ad which centers around a Black family is receiving?
What I saw was a creative and brilliant advert. Last year, I saw the incredible Angela Davies talk and I remember her saying, you can’t change the hearts of everyone.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU …
- A book you have to have in your collection – The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
- A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? – Amy Winehouse – Frank. My best friend introduced me to Amy when we were in secondary school and remember listening to this album a lot. I’d say listening to this album opened my eyes to different styles of music.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? I’m partial to Real Housewives of Atlanta because working in documentaries, I’m often researching heavy topics so I like to switch off.
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you? – I can’t quite remember but my most vivid memory of seeing a play was probably Warhorse at The National.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? – Sad – That we’re not having our regular build-up to Christmas. Mad – We’re still quite early on in the week, so I’m feeling quite positive. Glad – The Lovers Rock film from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe. It was sensational and I’m so pleased that our stories are being told on primetime television!
Billie is available to watch on Amazon Prime
Respect Me, I’m a Doctor is available to watch via All4