February 25, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Lee Daniels
Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., primarily from 1947 to 1959, the dramatic film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” features a predominantly African American cast (with some white people) who are connected in some way to legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who is the central character in the movie.
Culture Clash: Holiday’s drug addiction and her controversial civil rights song “Strange Fruit” made her a target of the FBI, which plotted to ruin her life.
Culture Audience: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a melodramatic interpretation of Holiday’s life and don’t mind if some parts of the movie are inaccurate.
If people watched the 1972 movie “Lady Sings the Blues” and the 2021 movie “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” they would wonder if Billie Holiday led different lives in alternate universes. Both movies are about Holiday, but they are very different from each other. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (directed by Lee Daniels) is the more sexually explicit, more realistic version of her life, compared to director Sidney J. Furie’s “Lady Sings the Blues” (starring Diana Ross as Holiday), which presented Holiday’s life as more of a romantic fantasy that was hindered by drug addiction. However, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” even with the benefit of a stunning performance by Andra Day and gorgeous costumes, misses the mark with an uneven tone that can’t decide if it wants to be a politically driven drama, a campy drug-addict saga or a sappy romance that was fabricated for the movie.
“Lady Sings the Blues” (written by Suzanne de Passe, Chris Clark and Terence McCloy) is more of a “rags to riches” story,” since it shows Holiday’s teen years and up to the height of her fame, but before she reached middle-age and died at the age of 44 in 1959. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”(written by Suzan-Lori Parks) is more of a “riches to downfall” story, since the movie shows Holiday (portrayed by Day) as a New York City-based diva already at the height of her fame and chronicles her continued slide into self-destruction until she was on her deathbed.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” has a brief flashback to Holiday’s childhood in Baltimore that shows her at 10 years old, living in a brothel and being told, against her will, that she will eventually have to service the clients. In real life, Holiday says she became a prostitute when she was 13. In “Lady Sings the Blues,” Holiday’s single mother Sadie is a live-in maid to a white family and let her daughter (whose birth name was Eleanora Fagan) spend time in the brothel that was run by a madam. However, in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” there is no such context to explain why the future Billie Holiday was living in a brothel as a child.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” aims to be a much more socially conscious movie than “Lady Sings the Blues” because it keeps hammering the point that the FBI conspired to ruin Holiday’s life, and her influential civil rights song “Strange Fruit” was the trigger. (The “Lady Sings the Blues” movie avoided pointing fingers at the FBI for Holiday’s downfall.) “Strange Fruit” (written by Abel Meeropol under the alias Lewis Allan) was released in 1939. It’s a poetically brutal commentary on racial injustice, particularly in describing the lynching of black people in the South.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” has an unnecessary narrative device that opens the movie in New York City in 1957, when Holiday is giving an audio interview to Reginald Lord Devine (played by Leslie Jordan), a flamboyant journalist who seems to have been written as the epitome of a white man from the South who is willfully ignorant about racial inequality. He drawls to Holiday: “Tell me, tell me, what’s it like to be a colored woman?”
This interview scenario then leads to flashbacks of Holiday’s life, primarily from 1947 to 1954, before culminating with her death in 1959. However, the writing, direction and editing for this movie are so choppy that the flashbacks are interrupted by going back to showing the annoying Devine asking silly questions. The movie would’ve been better off without this useless plot device of Holiday looking exasperated while she doing an interview that she clearly doesn’t want to do.
When Devine asks Holiday about “Strange Fruit” and why she creates problems for herself by singing it, she replies: “Ever seen a lynching? It’s about human rights. The government forgets that sometimes. They just want me to shut up and sing ‘All of Me.'”
The movie has repetitive scenes of Holiday arguing with people (such as a manager or nightclub owner) over wanting to sing “Strange Fruit,” but she’s often overruled. And when she does sing the song on stage at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia in 1947, her performance is cut short and she’s literally carried off stage while she’s fighting the man who’s forcing her to leave. It’s a very slapstick-type of scene that looks too over-acted.
In “Lady Sings the Blues,” drug addiction was the villain. In “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the FBI is an additional villain, specifically the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), who’s portrayed as ruthless, ambitious and very racist. (In case there’s any doubt that he’s racist, he uses the “n” word.)
In a 1947 government meeting in Washington, D.C., Anslinger says in some very corny dialogue: “Drugs and [a racial slur for black people] are a contamination to our great American civilization. Jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday has to be stopped.” Anslinger is such a stereotypical villain in the movie, that if his moustache had been long enough, he would’ve twirled it.
In this FBI meeting is attorney Roy Cohn (played by Damian Joseph Quinn), who would later become known as the right-hand man of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (played by Randy Davison) and their witch hunt against Communists. Much later in his life, Cohn was a “fixer” for many rich and famous clients, including Donald Trump. “Strange Fruit” is brought up in the meeting as a song that could incite riots, but Cohn says that trying to bust Holiday for inciting a riot would be a misdemeanor crime at worst. Cohn suggests to Anslinger that since Holiday is a well-known drug addict, it would be better to have her arrested for drugs.
And that’s why an African American FBI agent is recruited to go undercover and help the FBI arrest Holiday. His name is Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes), who ends up falling deeply in love with Holiday. In fact, their romance (which is completely exaggerated for the movie) becomes such a big part of the plot that it looks very fake, especially when Fletcher ends up shooting heroin with Holiday and having shared hallucinations with her. Viewers will be rolling their eyes at this nonsense more than a junkie who’s high on drugs.
Another ridiculous thing about the movie is how in almost every performance of Holiday’s that’s shown, Fletcher and usually Anslinger are also in the audience, as if they have nothing better to do with their time than stalk her. Fletcher is portrayed as someone who’s woefully inept at being undercover. He’s also ordered to follow her on tour, but it isn’t long before Fletcher doesn’t even try to be professional, and he’s partying with Holiday and her entourage like a pathetic hanger-on.
Holiday’s bisexuality, which she was open about in real life, is briefly hinted at in scenes with Holiday and actress Tallulah Bankhead (played by Natasha Lyonne), who is only identified in the movie as a “close friend.” The well-known affair that these two women had in real life is toned down for the movie. When Anslinger interrogates Bankhead and asks her point-blank if the stories are true that she and Holiday are lovers, she doesn’t really answer the question. When journalist Devine mentions Bankhead in his awkward interview that keeps disrupting the movie’s already ragged flow, Holiday gets defensive and sidesteps the question.
As for the other lovers in Holiday’s life, the ones portrayed in the movie are two who were also her managers: John Levy (played by Tone Bell) and Louis McKay (played by Rob Morgan), who would become her second husband in 1957. (In real life, Levy was white, so the movie did a racial swap with this character.) And briefly depicted is Holiday’s first husband James Monroe (played by Erik LaRay Harvey), a pimp who became a trombonist in her band.
Monroe, Levy and McKay are all portrayed as selfish, abusive leeches, which many people who were close to Holiday say was how these three men were like in real life. It’s more realistic than how McKay (played by Billy Dee Williams) was depicted in “Lady Sings the Blues,” as her only steady lover and as a caring man who never abused her and never took advantage of her. To its credit, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” doesn’t try to make it look like Holiday’s love life was that simple.
In fact, all of the men in Holiday’s life are depicted as using her in some way. Fletcher, who’s portrayed as the only “good man” in her love life, started out as using Holiday to further his career with the FBI. Her closest “friends” are on her payroll, including her saxophonist Lester Young (played by Tyler James Williams), who’s credited in real life with giving her the nickname Lady Day, and her trumpet player/drug dealer Joe Guy (played by Melvin Gregg). She also has two sassy personal assistants named Roslyn (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Miss Freddy (played by Miss Lawrence), who are the “court jesters” of this movie, since they provide most of the comic relief.
There’s a comedic scene that doesn’t work very well where Roslyn and Miss Freddy are invited to an elaborate funeral because Holiday has told them there’s been a death in her family. The death is shown to be serious enough that Holiday cancelled one of her shows. Roslyn and Miss Freddy go to the funeral, only to find out that it’s for Holiday’s dead Chihuahua. It’s definitely something that was fabricated for the movie, if only for the fact that planning this type of funeral would be hard to keep a secret from a celebrity’s personal assistants.
Holiday’s drug arrest in Philadelphia in 1947, as well as her subsequent imprisonment for one year, are covered in a rushed series of montages. It’s followed by a standout scene of her 1948 sold-out comeback performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. It was a breakthrough performance for a jazz artist at Carnegie Hall, which at the time was a venue for classical and opera music.
The FBI’s targeting of Holiday is unquestionably portrayed as racist harassment in this movie. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” shows other ways that Holiday was discriminated against because of her race. These scenes show how, even with her star status, Holiday could not escape from the systemic racism that she encountered in her everyday life.
There’s a scene where Holiday and Bankhead go to Bankhead’s apartment building, but the African American elevator attendant (played by Furly Mac) refuses to let Holiday use the lobby’s elevator because it’s the building’s policy that black people have to use the service elevator in the back. Even though Bankhead offers to take the service elevator with her, Holiday throws a fit and leaves the building in a huff, while the pain of this discrimination is on her face as she stands by herself outside. In another scene, Holiday is scheduled to perform at a major live radio broadcast, only to find out before she’s ready to take the stage that she’s been replaced by a white female singer because of the “Strange Fruit” controversy.
However, the movie falls off the rails around the time Holiday was arrested for drug possession in San Francisco in 1949. The way that the trial is depicted is fairly absurd, and it’s where the movie starts to drown in the schmaltz of Holiday and Fletcher’s romance that was contrived for the movie. Fletcher is depicted as willing to ruin his career, just to be with Holiday, when that didn’t happen in real life. Fun fact though: Fletcher’s colleague Agent Sam Williams is played by Evan Ross, who is one of Diana Ross’ sons.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is based on Johann Hari’s 2015 non-fiction book “Chasing the Scream,” which details the impact of America’s “war on drugs” and how people of color have been singled out more than white people as targets for drug arrests. Holiday’s troubles with the law are depicted as a precursor to the “war on drugs” that officially began when the Drug Enforcement Administration was formed in 1973 under then-U.S. president Richard Nixon.
However, this serious message of the film is cheapened by some dumb comedic scenes, dreadful dialogue and the unconvincing love affair between Holiday and Fletcher, who starts to romance her even more even after she’s found out that he works for the FBI. By all accounts in real life, Holiday preferred her men to be “bad boys” with shady reputations. Any sexual involvement with Fletcher would not have blossomed into the type of relationship where they’re making goo-goo eyes at each other while on a rowboat (as shown in one of the movie’s scenes), and he openly becomes her “tour boyfriend” while he’s on duty with the FBI.
Paramount Pictures was originally going to release “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” and it’s easy to see why the studio passed on it. The movie needed a massive rewrite and more cohesive direction, so that it would be more of an immersive experience instead of a series of scattershot, uneven scenes that sometimes have awkward transitions. That doesn’t mean the film is a complete disaster, but it should have been much better, considering all the talented people involved.
The high points of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” are the electrifying performances on stage. Day (who’s a fantastic singer) does all of her own vocals in the movie. Some of the songs heard in the movie are “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness,” “God Bless the Child,” “Lover Man,” “I Cried for You,” “Them There Eyes,” “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” “All of Me” and “Lady Sings the Blues.” And there’s a harrowing, impactful sequence of Holiday witnessing the aftermath of a lynching, which leads to her centerpiece performance of “Strange Fruit.”
Day brings a raspy, world-weary yet edgy quality to her overall performance as Holiday that is more authentic than Diana Ross’ interpretation of Holiday as an emotionally wounded waif in “Lady Sings the Blues.” (Ross got an Oscar nomination out of it.) The costume design and production design are well-done in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” However, all of it is not enough to overcome all the tonal misfires in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which won’t stand as the definitive Billie Holiday movie. For a more accurate and better movie about Holiday’s life, watch the documentary “Billie” instead.
Hulu will premiere “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” on February 26, 2021.