Director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) has taken the audience into his imagined world of the late, great, and deeply complicated Billie Holiday aka Lady Day, in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” with a screenplay written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”).
Stepping into the role of Billie is Andra Day who delivers a performance filled with power and dignity. From the start of the movie, with Holiday being slapped by her spouse (Rob Morgan)) for speaking her mind, you understand this movie is going to be raw, and perhaps hard to watch. “You can’t arrest a Nigger for singing,” says one of the White politicians who were deciding her fate, for singing “Strange Fruit,” a song about the lynching of African-Amerian women and men, in the deep, racist and dangerous south.
Holiday had issues, she was a drug addict, her choice of poison was heroin. Addiction is an illness, she should have been approached with kindness, understanding, and rehabilitation but they threw her in prison. This was the United States of America’s punishment for her daring to bring light to the murders of innocents, left hanging from trees, burned, mutilated —her punishment for singing a song (Strange Fruit).
This is an uneven film and I think, it’s because of the screenplay. But what they got right, which was a lot, was in showing the determination of the lady herself. Holiday willed herself back to work, clawing her way through the ruins of her life.
She refused to give up no matter what the setback, and there were many. Her grit got her a concert tour of Europe, a tremendous accomplishment. Remember, Holiday was being targeted by the United States of America, a dangerous enemy to have. One of the key characters asked an important question, “why is the government always after you?” and she replies, “it’s my song, it reminds them [government] that they are always killing us.” Too true then. Sadly, too true, now.
I don’t think anyone thinks of Holiday as a revolutionary artist but she was. Think about it, do you? I didn’t. I didn’t understand the impact her song, Strange Fruit had on her life, and our country. In the 1972 film about her life, “Lady Sings the Blues” actress Diana Ross didn’t take a deep-dive into politics. That film focused on her addiction and the impact it played in her demise.
The screenplay, by Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”), pushes a lot of information through in act one. The year, 1947, and Holiday is under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics head, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), a racist. Knowing about Holiday’s heroin addict, he decides to convict her based on this known fact.
It was such common knowledge, that Billie was hooting up, in her dressing room, that the film made it a very matter-of-fact act. Holiday does try to hide her track marks to the world, to her fans, feeling that she performs beautifully when high.
Times were hard. Holiday married her manager (Erik LaRay Harvey), who treated her like property. In a surprise twist, one of her adversaries, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), becomes a close and trusted friend. We first meet Jimmy, backstage, dressed in his military uniform. A man with a warm, supportive smile and a secret agenda. A handsome double-whammy for Holiday’s life.
Eventually, Holiday is arrested for using drugs, and spends a year behind bars, and gets sober. You would hope that the dynamic performer would look at her sobriety as an opportunity, a fresh start, an opportunity to turn her life around, right? Wrong. Holiday chooses to stay on drugs, sliding the needle into her veins, no doubt, as a way to remove her howling demons.
Holiday sells out Carnegie Hall and delivers a legendary performance, despite being denied her cabaret card, so outside of Philly and Washington, D.C., she couldn’t play in any club, which effectively kills off her career. All these vindictive moves were the United States of America’s attempt to punish Holiday for having the conviction to keep singing “Strange Fruit.” The theme of the film — “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is disloyalty, something she experienced on every level of her life.
I can’t say enough about the performance of Andra Day, in the role. She grows bolder in every scene. She’s made “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” a must-see film. It’s interesting that as the story continues her signature voice becomes, raspier as Holiday continues to party enjoying cigarettes, alcohol, and of course, drugs.
Billie Holiday with her signature, white orchids, her hair pulled back, in a simple bun, her blood-red lipstick, and matching fingernails, her svelte figure — all wrapped up to look beautiful but inside she was in pain. Excruciating pain and surrounded by enemies. One of the key characters answered why a group of white federal officers were so determined to tear her down to the bolts, he says it’s because “she’s strong, beautiful, and Black,” and I will add, also, because she’s was a woman.
What I appreciate is that director, Daniels never lets anyone forget the horrors of racism. To help set the mood and help the viewer understand these horrors that Holiday was singing about, he opens the film with a deeply disturbing image of a lynched African-American man.
“Strange Fruit,” again, the reason the Federal government of the United States wanted her silenced, is a poetic statement of the horrors of life, the injustice of life, for us, then and now.
There is no getting around it, “Strange Fruit” is at the heart of the movie. The way Billie sang it, from her broken heart, baring her immortal soul is a fierce piece of political art, and a show of such inner fortitude, that even with all of J. Edgar Hoover’s hateful vengeance, they did not silence her, cirrhosis of the liver did.
At one point, gaunt and close to death, she informs one of the nastiest of the Federal employees, the man instrumental in crafting her demise, that his “grandkids will be singing “Strange Fruit” — and she was right. Billie Holiday passed away on July 17, 1959, at the age of 44. She was handcuffed to her hospital bed.
Stay and watch the end credits, it’s inspirational and eye-opening. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” — now playing on Hulu. Directed by Lee Daniels. Screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks. Starring Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Adriane Lenox, Rob Morgan, Natasha Lyonne, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Tone Bell, Evan Ross, Tyler James Williams, Blake DeLong, Dana Gourrier, Melvin Gregg. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” now playing on Hulu.