|THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY (2021)|
️ ️ ️ ️ ️5/5
A work of art, a great film about a complicated, yet uniquely talented singer whose music means a lot to many of us. A dizzying dance with destiny that we are allowed to observe. Trial and triumph and more trial. Heartwarming in spots but mostly gut-wrenching. Darkness with just occasional daylight. That’s what this film is.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the 2021 Hulu release about the legendary singer, brings a song of affliction to the soul and more than a train with a thousand boxcars worth of heartache. The film has received bad reviews. I’m here to say those bad reviews are…bad. Notable critics are wrong about this film.
The movie evidently has some historical inaccuracies in it, based on many reports I’ve heard and read (I don’t know, I’ve not done a thorough investigation). It was based on a book by Johann Hari and I have no idea how accurate the book is. For this discussion, I am not concerned. I am reviewing and analyzing the artistic merits, not the historical accuracy, of a film. And what it does have is an evocative, mesmerizing performance by Andra Day as Holiday, who was one of the greatest Jazz singers—and singers, period—in history. Holiday was an amazing woman with a troubled life, and she is portrayed with vigor and brilliance by an extremely talented singer in her own right, making her film debut. That’s right. This is Andra Day acting in a film for the first time.
Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, adapted the material for the screen, Lee Daniels directed it, and Andrew Dunn did the cinematography. The film contains drama, abstract-type artistic elements, clear moments of artistic license and historical narratives, assembled together to create an amassment of cinematic triumph.
Holiday’s life was hard from childhood on. She was exposed to and involved in many bad things, and there is no effort here to sanitize who she was or the life she lived. The film is graphically honest in its telling. This one is not for kids.
Holiday was mistreated, used and exploited by men all of her life. And she was a drug addict. And—she was black. And the FBI hated her. Judy Garland, many people do not know, had a serious drug and alcohol addiction too, around the same time, but the FBI did not hound her. Holiday points something like this out in the film more than once. She knows she needs help, but instead of winding up in a hospital where she could get it, they put her in jail. I wonder why Judy Garland was treated differently from Billie Holiday? Oh, wait, I bet I know.
The plot of the film centers around Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit,” a haunting one that deals with the lynching of African-Americans. It is lyrically beautiful and provocative in its message, like a slap in the face to those who did not see, or were not willing to see, what was being done to Black people, especially in the South. It took a lot of active courage to even sing the song.
At the beginning of the movie, we are reminded that the U. S. Senate, in 1937, finally considered a bill which would have outlawed the lynching of African-Americans. The text is displayed across a picture of a group of smiling white men from some time around that period. Then the haunting words, “The bill did not pass” appear as the camera pans down to the corpse of a black person who has been lynched.
We then shift to 1957 where Holiday is being interviewed by a radio personality who asks why she continues to sing “Strange Fruit” even though she keeps “getting in trouble” for it. “Have you ever seen a lynching?” she asks, and then explains that the song is about human rights, which the government often forgets about. So far everything is “historically accurate.“
The conversation leads to a flashback to 1947 where Holiday is singing “All of Me” in a club. She later argues with her manager, Joe Glaser, and her abusive husband, Monroe, over whether or not she should sing “Strange Fruit.” The two men have become friends with FBI agent Harry J. Anslinger, and Glaser informs her that people high up in the government don’t want her singing it.
We then see a meeting where Anslinger warns his colleagues that Holiday refuses to stop singing the song and, therefore, is a threat to the American civilization or way of life or some such nonsense. They fear that she and the song will be a force for the imminent Civil Rights Movement. But since they cannot arrest her for singing a song, and “inciting a riot” would only be a misdemeanor, they point out that she is a drug addict and decide that is the avenue down which they will go after her. They will harass her on drug charges.
The film then shows Holiday doing heroin. She performs her next concert in honor of servicemen, saying that they are “fighting a real war” and she appreciates them. Kevin Hanchard plays Louis Armstrong at her side. The audience has federal agents in it, keeping an eye on her. After complaining that she feels “lonely tonight,” she starts singing “Solitude,” hauntingly interspersed with scenes of her drug use. The rest of the film deals with the rest of her life, as she is betrayed, hunted, harassed and persecuted, ostensibly for drug use, but really because she is a powerful, successful black woman whom the government fears.
The auteurism of director Lee Daniels drove the film to be a work of art more than a straight biopic. It is a movie of passion and beauty. I believe many critics have totally misinterpreted this film. You would hardly expect critics to malign perceived historical inaccuracies in dream sequences and montages of the singer’s life that are expressive and surreal. Maybe Billie Holiday is suffering the same kind of persecution of misunderstanding in death that she did in life.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” points to the way that the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover, a notorious and obvious racist, targeted African-Americans and was determined to “keep them in their place.” The so-called “war on drugs” was not about public health or safety, it was about persecuting African-Americans. I think many of us have believed that for a long time, the film just believes it too.
Billie Holiday proclaims in the film that the government could not afford to lose illegal narcotics. Think of how many government agencies would cease to exist, how many people would be out of jobs, if there were no illegal drugs saturating the streets. That does not mean that drugs are good, it means that there is hypocrisy in politics. And Hoover was one of the worst hypocrites in history.
Many historians dispute the fact that the song “Strange Fruit” was the reason the government harassed Holiday. So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is not totally accurate historically. Let’s go further and say that very little of its plot is accurate at all. What cannot be denied is that the point it makes, that the government harassed African-Americans and especially successful ones who spoke out about injustice, that J. Edgar Hoover‘s FBI was criminally racist, and that the incessant singling out and dogging of and mistreatment of Holiday happened for some reason, even if it wasn’t because of a song.
Who is made to look bad in this film if it took certain artistic liberties? If it was the FBI under Hoover, then good. The FBI chief did a lot of good for the country, but his legacy should be called on the carpet concerning the way he mistreated many American citizens. The film was not based on a biography of Billie Holiday. Perhaps it would have been better served to be. But the point remains that the essence of the woman, her talent, her career, and her troubles, are captured in a very enthralling manner.
And a final point about Andra Day. As noted, this was Day’s acting debut and she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture-Drama and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. There is some Déjà vu stuff going on here. Diana Ross also played Billie Holiday in her film debut, “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972). She also won…a Golden Globe award and was nominated for an Academy Award. I never thought I would see anything like Ross’ performance in that film again, but Day is right there with her, even besting her in the look and sound of Holiday. This movie is worth seeing if for no other reason (and there are plenty of other reasons) than to see Day’s performance. She nails the sound of Holiday, and more than adequately looks like her. At times you will think she is lip-synching over a Billie Holiday record. But that is Andra Day singing every song in the movie. Unbelievable.
“Nomadland” was a fantastic picture and Francis McDormand is one of the best actresses ever. She had already won two Academy Awards for Best Actress and won a third for playing Fern in “Nomadland.” It was a great performance, but it cannot touch what Andra Day did in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” The Academy Awards are over ninety years old, it’s 2021, and it seems we are still waiting for them to become color blind. ReplyForward