abc– When jazz icon Billie Holiday performed her protest anthem Strange Fruit, her eerie vocals conjuring images of Black bodies hanging in nooses from the trees, the song would often leave her in pieces.
“It affects me so much I get sick,” she wrote in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. “It takes all the strength out of me.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was less moved by her performance, however, deeming Strange Fruit – which bore out the history and horror of African-American slavery – an act of un-American sedition.
They set out to shut Holiday down at the height of her fame.
These events form the basis of director Lee Daniels’ new film The United States vs Billie Holiday, starring Andra Day in her Oscar-nominated role as the troubled pop legend.
Drawn from Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, and adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the film is as much an attempt to reckon with Holiday’s status as a civil rights icon as a musician.
Primarily set during the last decade of Holiday’s short, turbulent life – she died in 1959, aged just 44 – the film picks up in 1947 near the peak of her popularity, when the singer was touring with jazz big bands on the back of a string of hits (including Strange Fruit, recorded in 1939).
It’s a tantalising glimpse of the star in full flight, performances so often overshadowed in the historical narrative by her harrowing early life – which was marked by rape, domestic violence and teenage sex work – and later descent into drug addiction.
Singer-turned-actress Andra Day – who took her own stage name from Holiday’s nickname, Lady Day – gives a warm, full-bodied interpretation of the star, the kind of historical reanimation that the Academy loves.
Her raspy vocals seem to channel an entire history of pop music performance, from mid-century jazz singers through the more recent likes of Amy Winehouse – a lineage that would be impossible to imagine without Holiday’s distinctive influence.
But the exuberance of these sequences is short-lived.
Convinced that Strange Fruit will incite a race riot, Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) makes it his mission to bust Holiday – by then deep into her heroin habit – reasoning that if the FBI can’t arrest her for the song’s lyrics, they’ll frame her on drug charges.
Key to the sting is Jimmy Fletcher – played with subtle complexity by Moonlight star Trevante Rhodes – an FBI treasury stooge whose job is to insinuate himself into Holiday’s entourage and earn their trust.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is the latest in a what feels like a growing, and slightly strange, spate of Hollywood films dealing with conflicted feds tasked with taking down revolutionaries and activists – including the recent Judas and the Black Messiah and last year’s Seberg, which unsuccessfully tried to humanise their antagonists via underdeveloped characterisation and rote narratives.
Fletcher’s actions lead to Holiday’s trumped-up arrest, trial and incarceration, as a lone Black woman – burdened by personal trauma and systemic injustice – stares down the collective might of the US government.
Daniels’ knack for arresting, potent images – unforgettable, for better and worse, in films like Precious and The Paperboy – serves this early drama well.
He pointedly cuts between FBI suits congratulating each other and Black women getting hosed down in a penitentiary, and shows a phalanx of cops at Holiday’s concerts, waiting to pounce – a scene that connects to the long history of political censorship of Black performers, right through the hip hop provocations of Straight Outta Compton.
The filmmaker’s love for misfits also flavours scenes of Holiday’s entourage: her eye-patch-wearing side-gal Roslyn (a very funny Da’Vine Joy Randolph), her gender-ambiguous stylist Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence), and a brief dalliance with actress Tallulah Bankhead (a perfectly ridiculous Natasha Lyonne), nodding to Holiday’s long-rumoured queerness.
It’s all ostensibly a far cry from the most famous Billie Holiday biopic, the flawed but fascinating Lady Sings the Blues (1972), whose sensationalism and narrative clichés were nonetheless electrified by a star turn from Diana Ross as the jazz legend – her honey-sweet vocal homage gave the film a paradoxical thrill, one diva to another.
Yet despite Daniels’ best efforts to avoid a similar pulp tone, The United States vs Billie Holiday also succumbs to biopic shorthand and lurid indulgence.
One particular drug sequence, which sees Holiday walking Fletcher though her grim childhood like it’s an augmented reality diorama at a museum – complete with child sex trafficking and graphic lynching – comes off like a cheap filmmaking ploy to plumb her misery in order to accelerate his crisis of conscience.
And like Lady Sings the Blues, The United States vs Billie Holiday is compromised by a largely fictionalised romantic relationship.
Holiday’s abusive last husband Louis McKay got a swoony, Billy Dee Williams-shaped makeover in the former, while the new film gives Fletcher – a real-life FBI agent whose personal relationship to Holiday was unknown – a speculative sexual tryst with the star, a thread that struggles to justify its existence.
Both films ultimately commit a similar error: by sketching Holiday as a victim, they draw focus from the artistry of her vocal performance – one of the wonders of 20th-century music.
If there’s a great film yet to be made about Holiday the musician, then Daniels’ messy, sometimes engrossing film still makes for a dramatic depiction of America’s racial battleground – where the film’s events are less about the court case than a nation at war with Holiday, a Black woman facing a stacked deck of childhood abuse, domestic violence and systemic oppression.
As Holiday famously wrote of the trial in her biography: “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday.’ And that’s just the way it felt.”
Day gives us a sense of Holiday’s hard-forged resilience, and her performance of Strange Fruit is, in its own small way, something of a marvel.
Daniels holds her in tight, stark close-up as she curls her lips around those devastating lyrics, allowing the incongruous rattle of her glossy, sequined earrings to fill in the silences for chilling effect.
It’s a pretty powerful moment, even if the film can’t always match it.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is in cinemas from April 29.