Baggies Nomination #3:
“The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” (2021) directed by Lee Daniels, takes a harrowing look at an artist whose music for newer generations has become synonymous with the bewitching slow dance that prompts the love story at the center of “The Notebook” (2004) or as the reverberating backtrack to Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves” from his popular YEEZUS album (2013). However, Billie Holiday’s story is leaps and bounds more groundbreaking and harrowing than most fans today realize. This film takes a look at the target that her powerful hit “Strange Fruit” put on her back and the rapturous childhood that led to her hardwearing addiction.
Played by Andra Day, we meet Billie Holiday, also known as “Lady Day,” while she is being interviewed by an enthusiastic yet out of touch (as it seems most white people were at this time), reporter played by Leslie Jordan (donning a fabulous waft of hair). She is smoking, irritable and refuses to pander to any of the ignorant questions she is asked. The most common one being, “why don’t you just stop singing that song?” The song is “Strange Fruit” and it hauntingly reflects on the practice of lynching, a gruesome form of murder used as punishment against African Americans. Undoubtedly, it made white people uncomfortable. Namely, it made the racist white government workers furious that a black woman was calling them out directly and publically, and it became their mission to silence her. “She’s inciting a riot” the villainous Anslinger (Hedlund) suggests as he struggles to construct a way to incriminate Holiday. Eventually, the authorities use her vice – her drug addiction – to nail her, no matter what it takes to catch her in the act.
The trouble with biopics and especially ones centered on Black Americans is that the stories so often rely on sensationalized darkness – the racism, the drugs, the trauma – more than creating a dignified story all together. This film falters at times, but succeeds at others. There is far too much screen time dedicated to monologues which spoon feed the narrative, occasionally becoming melodramatic – “She got an emptiness that only a fix could fill…”. At other times, the story captures a lot of Holiday’s unique sensibility and power in a way that feels constructive and inspiring. This biographical take on a prominent figure was more enjoyable than most in the last few years.
The film, written by American playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks. Parks was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama and here she uses her talents to adapt just a single chapter in Johann Hari’s book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” (2015), which explains why the script read less like strictly a biopic and more like historical fiction in the same vein as “Spotlight” (2015) or even “The Trial of Chicago 7” which also came out this year. It follows not only the perspective of Holiday, but also incorporates the story from lesser known character Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), a Black agent working for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (an early version of the DEA), tasked with monitoring Holiday’s every move. If you recognize Rhodes, it is because his breakthrough role was one of the most memorable of the decade, as Chiron “Black” Harris as an adult in “Moonlight” (2016), which won Best Picture at the Oscars that year. We see a softer character here, but one who is conflicted. Having developed resentment to the world of drugs that had brought ruin to many black communities, Fletcher has built his life around trying to “make the world a better place” through his role in the Federal Bureau. As there was less mention of real-life Fletcher in a historical sense, Rhodes was left with less material to build his character around, which he saw as a gift. His preparation included taking in his influences of the time, listening to the music he would have heard, the celebrities he might have interacted with, and generally understanding the world Fletcher was navigating. “In one of the books I read [I found] that’s something that he really prided himself on, his ability to really maneuver and be whoever he needed to be in any situation, whether it was with someone who was the ritziest or someone who was in the slums,” said Rhodes. From a screenplay standpoint, Fletcher provides a window for the audience not only into Holiday’s world, but also behind the curtain in the halls of the FBI. He also plays Billie’s lover, allowing us to see a softer side.
Holiday, who was a heroin addict, was imprisoned for drug possession, but in reality, the feds were after her because she was a powerful, Black celebrity and a threat to the status quo of white, racist life. The incorporation of the perspective of the black American Federal Government employees elevated the film from a typical biopic to a more nuanced commentary on race and the way that even the most successful black Americans were used, abused and pressured in ways that white Americans often fail to recognize. It is undoubtedly shocking (to some degree) and frustrating to watch one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time being forced to spend much of her career dodging the American federal government for refusing to stand down on her public condemnation of lynching. The 1940’s are not so long ago, and it is heart-wrenching to hear the heavy lyrics of the central ballad “Strange Fruit.” Andra Day’s mastered Billie Holiday’s unique sound impressively
There are excellent performances by the surrounding cast, including Garrett Hedlund as the villainous Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger (who was given an actual award from former President John F. Kennedy for his racist record), Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Billie’s posse member Roslyn, and Natasha Lyonne as Billie’s female friend and suspected lover Tallulah Bankhead. But, of course, the real reason to watch is to see Andra Day’s stunning transformation into Holiday, capturing her edge, voice and durability with humanity and charm. There are creative spliced footage and one trippy childhood sequence intermixed with a drug trip. There is beautiful music. There is a fascinating, heartbreaking story. Not perfect, but a solid and very watchable film.