Lee Daniels’ film The United States Vs. Billie Holiday chronicles the tumultuous life and brilliant career of Billie Holiday (Andra Day). Her drug addiction and drive to perform her controversial song “Strange Fruit” at all costs, made her a target for federal agents, particularly by Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
The film follows Holiday through the different stages of her life and career, from her newfound stardom to her time in jail and ultimately to her death. Day gives an outstanding performance as Holiday. Her voice captures the beauty and deep emotion of Holiday’s, giving chills to everyone who listens. Day is also able to capture Holiday’s intense emotions, from deep sadness and loneliness to the euphoria she experiences when she sings.
Holiday’s relationships with her three husbands, Jimmy Monroe (Erik LaRay Harvey), Joe Guy (Melvin Gregg), and Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), are all portrayed as abusive in some way, and it is revealed to the audience that she uses drugs to cope with the pain, which originated when she was raped at the age of 10.
Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” tells the story of the lynchings of Black Americans, comparing their hanging bodies to the fruit of a tree. Recorded in 1939, its lyrics drew ire from some Americans as well as the United States government. In the film, Anslinger claims that even President Herbert Hoover called the song “un-American.” Since Holiday can’t be arrested for merely singing the song—even though she is dragged offstage for singing it at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia in 1947—the government aims to detain her for drugs. She is arrested for drug possession and is sentenced to a year in prison, after which she loses her cabaret card.
Once released from prison, Holiday makes her comeback at Carnegie Hall when she sings to an integrated audience. After marrying Levy and singing in his club for a time, she goes on a tour of America and engages in a whirlwind of extramarital romances in the jam-packed plot. She eventually becomes romantically involved with Jimmy Fletcher, the agent who was originally assigned to her drug case. She later returns home and marries McKay and then tours the world. During all of this time, she continues to abuse drugs and alcohol, becoming more and more dependent on narcotics. Holiday soon reveals to Fletcher that she has cirrhosis of the liver and is hospitalized due to her illness. Federal agents try to get her to confess the names of her drug suppliers, but she refuses and instead tells Anslinger, “Your grandkids will be singing ‘Strange Fruit.’”
Holiday died at the age of 44, decades before “Strange Fruit” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978 and was called the “Song of the Century” in 1999 by Time magazine. The United States Vs. Billie Holiday is a testament to the powerful voice and presence of Holiday and the strength she demonstrated throughout her life in the face of many struggles.
The film is somewhat confusing at times, particularly in one scene that shows Holiday after she’s witnessed a lynching while on tour in the South. Afterwards, Holiday is seen entering a house where she is offered drugs, leading into a sequence of disordered scenes—almost like a drug-induced dream.
The true star of the film is Holiday’s music, which is featured throughout the movie. At the beginning, many of the characters are introduced in flashbacks and scenes that blend into each other—blending like the notes in the music which Holiday sings.
One notable scene is when Holiday sings “Strange Fruit” and the focus is solely on her standing onstage, lit up by a single spotlight. Her voice and presence fill the screen, and Day embodies Holiday at her core: a singer who was plagued by passion and her own addictions. For its possible flaws, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday is still a strong testament to the talented Holiday. Despite the attempts to censor her music and performances, her legacy remains, and she will forever be seen, as Fletcher said, as “strong, beautiful, and Black.
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