The United States vs Billie Holiday – how one troubled artist became a voice for civil rights
The United States vs Billie Holiday tells the story of legendary singer Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, who spent much of her career being adored by fans across the globe. However, beginning in the 1940’s in New York City, the federal government targeted Holiday in a growing effort to escalate and racialize the war on drugs, which Holiday was known for her use of heroin. Ultimately, Federal agent Harry J. Anslinger (Bureau of Narcotics) took it upon himself and his team to go one step further, by trying to also suppress the rights of African Americans by aiming to stop her from singing her controversial ballad about public lynchings, “Strange Fruit.”
Andra Day won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in her role as Billie Holiday.
As the film begins, what a surprise to see Leslie Jordan cast as Reginald Lord Devine, a journalist who set up a (paid) interview with Billie. The scene is comical in a dated 1930s white/black society, but sets the precedent for the core of what this film is about – ignorance and intolerance. Each time a story such as this is told, it once again reinforces how far we’ve come, yet how far we still have to go with achieving equality for all.
Billie Holiday is played stupendously by Andra Day, whose performance is definitely awards worthy. Holiday led a troubled life from her family upbringing to her life on the streets, and subsequent drug addiction. Despite all this against her, she shares the stage with some of the biggest names of the time, such as Louis Armstrong. Her past troubles have also hindered her capacity to have any sort of loving relationship, and the ones depicted in the movie are of an abusive husband, and lover. She describes these relationships as, “complicated.”
Holiday hobnobbed with top names of the day, including the openly bisexual Tallulah Bankhead. While trying to maintain a career in the white, male-dominated music business of the time, it’s hard enough being a Black singer with the restrictions that come along with that, but then having a whole government team trying to bring you down adds just another layer of heartache. She was set up on more than one occasion, had her working card revoked so she couldn’t perform in certain areas, and even did a stint in jail for drug possession.
Her refusal to stop singing Strange Fruit was at the core of all these attacks, as it was a song of truth that made many people feel uncomfortable. She was told on more than one occasion that all this harassment could stop if she just stopped performing that one song, which she refused to do.
From today’s lens, it’s hard to imagine the United States government tormenting anyone for just singing a song. Certainly not Strange Fruit, her protest song against lynching. What crime could the United States government possibly find in amplifying the senseless killing of Black people, Black men specifically, for nothing more than the colour of their skin? Why was any entity of the federal government outraged over a now classic American protest song with the lyric “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees?”
No amount of fame could save her from the punishment reserved for her refusal to stop singing Strange Fruit. Unable to outrun her demons, she had turned to drugs early to numb the pain of her rough childhood, her unfortunate choice in men, and just the price of living Black and female in America. And the government, her government, used her weakness and her drug addiction, against her.
Fighting unfairly, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger, who founded this country’s infamous “War on Drugs,” hired Jimmy Fletcher, a Black man, to infiltrate her jazz circles and take her down. But their plan hit a major snag when Jimmy did the unthinkable and fell in love with her. It wasn’t enough to save her from a horrific death at the young age of 44 chained to a hospital bed surrounded by federal agents.
Did the government kill Lady Day? The United States vs. Billie Holiday dares to answer that question.
“Whether you are new to the story and legacy of Billie Holiday or know every note she ever sang, I do hope our celebration of this complex woman does justice to a great musical legend and civil rights activist whose artistry resonates as well today, as it did 80 years ago. Hulu releasing this film and giving it a platform to be seen nationwide is a blessing, because as recent events reveal, our country has much work to do in fulfilling its promise of a more perfect union,”said Lee Daniels.
Led by Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels, and introducing Grammy nominated singer–songwriter Andra Day, The United States vs Billie Holiday unapologetically presents the icon’s complicated, irrepressible life. Screenplay Writer Suzan–Lori Parks, the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, pens this intimate tale of a fierce trailblazer whose defiance through music helped usher in the civil rights movement. Based on the chapter “The Black Hand” on Billie Holiday in Johann Mari’s 2015 bestselling book,Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. NAACP Image Award Nominee Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) and Emmy Nominee Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black) co–star along with Garrett Hedlund, Miss Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Evan Ross, Tyler James Williams, Tone Bell, and Erik LaRay Harvey.
It should also be noted that the song was originally recorded in 1937 as a call to action on public lynchings, and just last year the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was put to Senate again last year for consideration, and to this date has still not been passed. “Strange Fruit” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978, and was listed as Time Magazine’s “Song of the Century,”
The film is available on Hulu, Rogers On Demand, Telus on Demand, Bell On Demand, Shaw on Demand, Microsoft Store, Cogeco on Demand and iTunes.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.