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The United States vs Billie Holiday

Peter W Sheehan  |  20 April 2021

THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY. Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, and Natasha Lyonne. Also, Garrett Hedlund. Directed by Lee Daniels. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong themes, drug use and sex scenes). 130 min.

The film is based on the book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari. For her performance as Billie Holiday, Andra Day won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama in 2020, and has been nominated in 2021 for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

The film concentrates on the latter period of Holiday’s life, up until her death at age 44 in 1959. It tracks Holiday when she was targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics, and it combines fact with some fiction. Many movies over the years have tried to capture Billie Holiday’s complex life on screen.

Day’s performance as Billie Holiday is outstanding. Day is a singer-turned actor who captures the animated spirit of a famous legend charismatically. Day has a powerful screen presence and sings Holiday’s songs vibrantly. Her soulful rendition of “Strange Fruit”, 75 minutes into the movie, and arguably the black movement’s most famous protest song, poetically laments the horror of Black American lynching in southern US. It is wonderfully performed by Day. The song’s lament lies at the core of the movie’s heart; “Strange Fruit” aroused people so strongly that it immediately made Billie Holiday an enemy of the state.

The narrative telling of Holiday’s tragic life-story is distinctive. Holiday was a victim of drug and alcohol abuse, and the film emphasises her abuse in graphic detail. In this film, we learn more about her as a drug addict than how she became a gifted jazz singer. The film liberally, and at times presumptively, assumes that violence and explicit sexual activity are necessary for viewers to see to help them understand Holiday as an anguished, unstable person. The FBI could not arrest a singer, for example, but could charge a heroin addict, and the FBI chose to target Holiday for drug abuse. Overall, the film offers a compelling statement about the known mistreatment of black people in the US, and is full of revealing moments. Day’s singing in this film is part of a strong emotional context that defined who Holiday was and what she stood for. An important message that is never lost in the film is how much Holiday was a victim of racism, practised by government forces that surrounded her, wherever she went.

The movie focuses pointedly on the turbulent aspects of Holiday’s tragic life. It is filled with drug arrests, drug abuse, multiple containments in prison, and sordid details of assaultive and abusive relationships. The film also touches on Holiday’s sexual affair with Tallulah Bankhead (Lyonne), a person who publicly defended the civil rights of marginalised peoples.

To frame and trap Holiday as an incendiary performer, the FBI assigned Jimmy Fletcher (Rhodes), a black agent, to observe her, follow her, and arrest her. Fletcher fell in love with her, betrayed her, and then reunited with her, as her long-time lover. The film ends with Holiday in a hospital room, being arrested by the FBI as she lay dying. Throughout her life, she was a passionate spokeswoman for the rights of “the unheard people”, but it was her personal influence, combined with drug addiction, racism, and the haunting song, “Strange Fruit” ­– never to be forgotten – that ultimately caused her downfall.

This film is an evocative movie about the persecution of a famous, emotionally vulnerable jazz singer. Day shines in the film as Billie Holiday, with a voice and presence that does justice to a musical legend.

Universal Pictures International
Released 29 April 2021
Peter W Sheehan is an Associate of Jesuit Media



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