As a music lover, I have always enjoyed the song stylings of jazz great Billie Holiday. However, I must admit that I never knew the story of her troubled life.
In the 2021 film The United States vs. Billie Holiday now streaming on Hulu, director Lee Daniels, screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks, and an incredible cast bring the tortured life of Billie Holiday to the masses.
Andra Day plays the title character with a mixture of passion, charm, talent, and misery. She is mesmerizing and unapologetic. Day, who was previously known only as an R&B singer and has never acted before, should expect an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. It would be a crime if she were not nominated.
The film takes us through Holliday’s professional singing career, focusing on the 1940s when the government began targeting the singer in anger over her singing the controversial song Strange Fruit.
The song depicts a black man being lynched. Holiday originally recorded the song in 1939 and it made white people uneasy. While the authorities had no way to legally keep Holiday from singing the song in her live cabaret shows, they went after her for her heroin addiction – jailing her for narcotics possession. If she was in jail she couldn’t sing the song. After she was released from jail, she continued to have issues with the authorities who hounded her until her untimely death at the age of 44.
The film is magnificent. Director Daniels perfectly captures the mood of the era and Day’s incredible and brave performance is mesmerizing.
It is shocking to learn that the Senate did not pass the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act until 2018 and the Emmett Till Antilynching Act did not pass in the House of Representatives until 2020. As of today, no anti-lynching bill has been passed by both houses. In my opinion, this is criminal.
In the supporting cast, Trevante Rhodes does a fine job as Jimmy Fletcher, one of the first black federal government agents. Fletcher is tasked by his white superiors with sending Holiday to jail. After she is done serving her time, Fletcher is again tasked with trying to dig up dirt on her. When that fails, the feds institute a plan to plant drugs on Holiday. Ultimately Fletcher has to decide if he is helping the war on drugs or if he is just a pawn of the white man.
The war on Billie Holiday came directly from Harry J. Anslinger, the head of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Played by Garrett Hedlund, Anslinger is obsessed with ruining Holiday’s career. It is a personal beef that demonstrates the degree that racism infiltrated the government.
The United States vs. Billie Holliday is a well told story. I did indeed shed tears watching this film. It takes a lot to move me to tears. It will probably earn a Best Picture nomination, and I will applaud that when it happens.
Holiday’s song Strange Fruit was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. It was named song of the century by Time magazine in 1999.
The film contains nudity, drug use, foul language, and violence.
Peace. Love. Trust.
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