In ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday,’ Andra Day Captures the Brilliance and Tragedy of a Jazz Icon
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” profiles a music icon while exploring the very real power of a statement made through song. Lee Daniels tells this story with flashes of melodrama, silky visual patterns and a political frankness that rises above the script’s more fractured sections. At the center of it all is Andra Day, who is tasked with bringing to life one of those artists who has been fully absorbed by cultural myth. It is an astounding acting debut in a feature film. Billie Holiday isn’t just a jazz singer. She fully personifies the look and sound of an era. Daniels evokes her tragic downfall in a haze of drugs and alcohol, but also captures her heroism, and how that enduring, hauntingly poetic song, “Strange Fruit,” shook the sensibilities of a racist society.
The song in question was taken from a poem by Abel Meeropol, describing with evocative language the lynching of a Black person. At a time when such a vicious crime was all too common in the American South, Billie’s singing of the song was seen as provocative. As the film opens in 1947, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is keeping a close eye on Billie (Day), who is still packing concert venues (despite the government denying her a cabaret card to play clubs). The head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), is a right-wing believer in the danger a song like “Strange Fruit” poses, but the best angle he can find for arresting the artist is through her known use of heroin. Billie’s life backstage is already a nest of intrigues as her career is managed by husband James Monroe (Erik LaRay Harvey), who keeps a close eye during interviews, while a gallery of other men, fiends and moochers, parade through. True loyalty comes from the band, who endures Billie’s swerving mix of kindness and addiction-fueled tantrums. Into her life enters a veteran turned journalist, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). For a brief spell it seems like Fletcher can give Billie the kind of emotional security and sense of love she yearns for, except he’s harboring a secret connected to the government’s obsession with her.
Daniels, director of warmth and gritty realism in films like “Precious” and “The Butler,” presents a truer, rougher-edged portrait of Billie Holiday than any other movie. Until now the best known drama about her life has been 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” where Diana Ross played the role with warmth and strength. Ross also sang Holiday standards with a polished, pop-friendly approach. Daniels and cinematographer Andrew Dunn use velvety cinematography to evoke that unique era of ‘40s jazz, the one James Baldwin complained the other movie failed to capture. But Daniels and writer/playwright Suzan-Lori Parks are not seeking to make a biopic per se. Parks bases the screenplay on the book “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari, which traces the “war on drugs” to the racist policies first aimed at artists like Billie Holiday. Pursuing her for heroin was easier than openly censoring her music. The dialogue can have the frankness of a blunt political drama. Anslinger tells agents Billie’s music belongs to the devil and threatens law and order. He sits in the audience at a concert, fuming as fans throw praise at Billie and ask for “Strange Fruit.”
Daniels does infuse the story with personal details from Billie’s story and uses Fletcher as a witness standing in for us. He has a hidden agenda related to the FBI, and like the informer in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” another recent film of government harassment of a Black icon, Fletcher can’t help but be entranced by Billie. There are set pieces both theatrical but potent, as when Fletcher is made to try heroin with Billie’s band and he enters a hallucinatory journey through her story, including her painful childhood watching her mother work at a brothel. Yet Daniels does repeat a bit of urban mythology established in the Diana Ross movie, particularly a scene where Billie walks into the aftermath of a lynching while on tour. We get the impression this is why she recorded “Strange Fruit.” The real story is on its own incredibly moving and tragic. Per Billie’s autobiography, her father, a traveling jazz musician, came down with pneumonia and was denied treatment at several hospitals until his military papers finally got him admitted to a “Jim Crow ward,” where he died. Maybe for the movies making the connection to the song is too subtle.
When the narrative does get jumbled it mostly happens because Daniels wants to give many things proper space. Billie’s roles as tortured artist and as a dangerous political symbol fight for attention, and on top of that are her lovers and trysts. She wants Fletcher, but can’t help but fall into the arm of a numbers gangster, before eventually going back to an abusive husband who casually calls her “bitch.” A bittersweet romance feels crammed in with all the FBI material. Holding all this together is Andra Day in one of the first great performances of the year. That she is originally a singer only adds to the performance’s power. Her Billie Holiday is a brilliant artist who knows the ways of the world, but has gotten tired of fighting against the impulse to shoot up and drown out lingering emotional scars. She is courageous and bohemian, fiercely independent but an easy target for freeloading men. Day captures the beauty and painful edges exquisitely. One moment we feel pity for Billie, and then she turns into an intimidating force of nature. The concert scenes are flawless. Day herself sings the songs, crooning evocative renditions of “All of Me,” “Solitude,” “Lady Sings the Blues” and, of course, “Strange Fruit.” She is not imitating Billie Holiday, but channeling her vocal style to an even higher degree than Diana Ross. Notice the dreamlike power she brings to “Lover Man.”
But at its heart, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is about history. It joins recent films and documentaries like “MLK/FBI,” about the COINTELPRO operation against Martin Luther King Jr., to chart the secret war government forces waged against the Black American community, as it found emancipation in politics and the arts. With “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday began bridging both in a way. Daniels opens the film with a strikingly disturbing photo of a lynched man’s burning corpse, then closes with a reminder that to this day, the U.S. has yet to pass legislation declaring lynching a federal hate crime. No wonder that great and haunted song has lost none of its power. As the final moments of the film show, Billie Holiday died in 1959 of cirrhosis of the liver, her leg handcuffed to the bed because she had just been arrested over a narcotics charge. It’s easy to see such harassment had more to do with what Billie represented than with drug use. Fast forward more than half a century and J. Edgar Hoover is long dead and reduced to a disturbing shadow. Billie Holiday’s voice is still alive and leaves a mark.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” begins streaming Feb. 26 on Hulu.