In the hands of director Lee Daniels (Precious (2009), The Butler (2013)), the life of legendary Jazz singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day) becomes a messy patchwork of fact and fiction. The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021) is based on the book Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari but, apparently, Daniels doesn’t seem to place much confidence in the source material by inventing characters and exploring the possibility of a romantic relationship between Lady Day (Day) and Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes)–a Black federal agent who betrayed her.
I could not help but be thoroughly impressed with Andra Day channeling the unique vocal stylings of one of the greatest Jazz singers of all time. She was more than deserving of the Best Actress Golden Globe for single handedly keeping the movie from flatlining for most of its 2 hour and 10 minute run time.
But what we do know for sure is that Billie Holiday (Day) stayed on the feds radar in a bad way throughout her career. Particularly, that of the racist commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) for her refusal to stop singing her signature anti-lynching protest song Strange Fruit.
Harry Anslinger (Hedlund) ultimately exploits Holiday’s drug addiction as well as her addiction to often violent and untrustworthy men to silence her. But Anslinger is not satisfied with just imprisoning her for a year in a woman’s reformatory. He goes all out to destroy Lady Day and even arrests her as she lay dying, handcuffing her to a hospital bed where she eventually succumbs to years of drug abuse, chain smoking, and alcoholism at the early age of 44.
But this movie is hardly a cautionary tale about the evils of heroine addiction. It’s about ten year old Eleanora Fagan being raped, working in a brothel with her mother at the age of 14, being pimped by her husband while trying to survive America’s endless addiction to racism and continued hatred of the Black woman only to be destroyed by the white supremacist’s powers that be.
Billie Holiday was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for Strange Fruit which was also named Time Magazine’s song of the century. And we are informed right before the ending credits that, as of last year, the Senate has yet to pass the Emmitt Till Anti-Lynching Act.
The United States for the win.