The United States vs. Billie Holiday yields no bitter crop. Lee Daniels’ biopic about the late jazz singer who gave voice to a civil rights anthem offers “Lady Day” her due. Fuelled by a transformative performance by singer Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a portrait of a hero’s voice. The film focuses on Holiday’s struggles and resilience as told through her iconic song “Strange Fruit.” The ballad is an anthem for Black rights as it chillingly conveys the horrors of lynching. The images of Black bodies hanging in the trees irks lawmakers and the film poignantly reminds viewers that no anti-lynching law exists in the USA to this day. Holiday’s music, and the price she paid for sharing it, resonates especially strongly after the tumultuous events of 2020.
Many accounts of Holiday’s life often lapse into a victim narrative. Even last year’s insightful doc Billie emphasized Holiday’s struggles with addiction, promiscuity, and troubled youth as much or more than her music. That choice might be easy and, perhaps, inevitable since Holiday died at only 44 years old. However, the screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks rejects that narrative. In adapting one chapter of Johann Hari’s non-fiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, her script emphasizes Holiday’s heroic qualities. Moreover, in dramatizing Holiday’s fight to sing “Strange Fruit” for audiences, and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ (a precursor to the DEA) efforts to use drug laws to make examples out of successful Black Americans, the film stresses the systemic racism inherent in America’s war on drugs. The push is not to help addicts, but to put successful Black folks in jail.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday builds its dramatic arc around the tension created by “Strange Fruit.” Audiences at every nightclub and concert hall shout “Strange Fruit!” each time Holiday takes the stage. She doesn’t sing it. Instead, she belts out soulful renditions of safer numbers like “All of Me.” The tunes placate the hordes of cops in the crowd. They’re standing by to shut the show down with the first notes of “Strange Fruit.” Yet whenever she performs a concert without “Strange Fruit,” Holiday recognizes the false note. Once or twice, the first chords of “Strange Fruit” appear, shortly before Holiday is whisked offstage. They can’t arrest Holiday for singing a song (one copper suggests a charge of inciting a riot) so they devise ways to exploit her taste for smack.
The chief antagonist is agent Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) a hard-nosed racist who can’t handle the truth Holiday speaks. The agency, however, exploits the social gap between white and Black Americans and baits Holiday and other addicts by pitting them against their own kind. Cue agent Jimmy Fletcher (who infiltrates Holiday’s gang as a fan, only to rat her out to the fuzz. (Trevante Rhodes plays Fletcher and handily delivers on the promise of his breakthrough work in Moonlight.) The betrayal irks everyone from Holiday to Fletcher’s mother.
However, he recognizes that the true betrayal is to himself and sees Holiday’s situation as a chance to right a broken system. He witnesses Holiday’s battles with addiction firsthand and her refusal to break under pressure to pluck “Strange Fruit” from her set lists. These sights teach him how Holiday’s music is more than mere accompaniment for liquor and good times. It’s a voice for the voiceless.
A Star Is Born
While some shades of the musical biopic formula are familiar, like the cringe-worthy interview with Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) that guides Holiday’s story between past and present, the film mostly offers a fresh take on the star’s story. By centring the drama on “Strange Fruit,” The United States vs. Billie Holiday eschews biopic convention. This smartly focused work favours a star’s impact rather than her cradle-to-grave tale.
Moreover, as it builds to the inevitable performance of the song, it lets the words of “Strange Fruit” hit with maximal impact. Day delivers “Strange Fruit” in a raw and soulful minimalist rendition. One feels the ache in Billie Holiday’s soul as Day brings the song to life. I dare anyone to sit through Day’s performance of “Strange Fruit” without getting chills. It’s a dramatic full stop in Daniels’ film—a brilliantly played direct address that leaves a viewer awestruck.
The songs, delivered in live recordings with Day’s vocals bravely substituting Holiday’s, carry the film with melodious power. Day is sensationally good as Billie Holiday. Already celebrated as a singer, Day is a star born anew with her first dramatic lead. She has a magnetic screen quality that naturally perceives Holiday’s explosive inner cocktail of strength and sorrow. She brings Holiday’s voice and spirit to life from deep within, offering a mature and complexly realized take on the singer. The United States vs. Billie Holiday doesn’t downplay its subject’s struggles. Rather, it uses them to accentuate her talent and bravery.