'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' brings Holiday's legacy into the present

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'The United States vs Bille Holiday' press image
Andra Day and Kevin Hanchard in 'The United States vs Billie Holiday' from Paramount Pictures, a Hulu Originals release. (Takashi Seida)

If you're looking for a gauzy biopic, look elsewhere. In the Hulu Original release, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks provide us an unfiltered look at the life experience of legendary singer Billie Holiday, and in so doing, they hold up a mirror to America.

Set primarily in the late 1940s and early '50s, The United States vs. Billie Holiday follows Holiday as she captivates New York with her undeniable talent while facing a personal struggle with substance-abuse disorder. Meanwhile, as racist lynchings continue in the United States, Congress cannot pass an anti-lynching law. Holiday responds with her consciousness-raising protest song "Strange Fruit." Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger — exploiting Holiday's battle with heroin — engages his agency in ongoing attempts to silence the singer from performing the civil-rights anthem. Running parallel until indelibly intersecting with Holiday's timeline is the story of Jimmy Fletcher, one of the United States' first Black federal agents, who has been placed in charge of investigating and arresting Holiday on drugs charges.

Portraying Billie Holiday is Andra Day, who visited The Current studio in 2016 as a Grammy nominee for her single, "Rise Up." In her acting debut, Day 's courageous and committed performance has already earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture; an Oscar nomination will likely follow in March. Day utterly inhabits the role, capturing all of Holiday's talent — including her singing voice — while conveying the inexorable pain that lingered just beneath the surface, the result of the trauma that persisted in Holiday's life from childhood.

Fletcher, meanwhile, is played by Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), whose transformation from by-the-book federal agent to empathetic observer to loving companion provides a lens through which we can see and appreciate the complexities of Holiday's personal life in increasingly greater detail as the film progresses.

Despite her personal struggles, Holiday is assertive, ambitious, influential and successful; where Anslinger is intimidated by a Black woman's achievement, Fletcher is awed. Noting the trouble the song "Strange Fruit" is bringing to Holiday, white interviewer Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) asks the singer an assimilationist question: "Why not just stop singing the song?" Holiday is resolute. "It's about human rights," she insists.

Music is given plenty of space in this film as we're treated to Andra Day's loyal renditions of Lady Day's classics, including "Lover Man," "Them There Eyes" and "Ain't Nobody's Business." Visually, the film recalls the meticulously detailed period accuracy of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, while also availing itself of archival footage as well as occasional black-and-white and film-grain effects to evoke the grittiness of film noir or the arm's-length detachment of newsreels.

Not that The United States vs. Billie Holiday is immovably committed to capturing history in perfect detail. Occasional anachronisms, typically in the form of modern slang, remind us we're watching a film that's as much about the past as it is the present. The racist "war on drugs" prosecuted by Anslinger (Minnesota-born actor Garrett Hedlund, who played a decidedly antiracist character in 2017's Mudbound) deliberately targeted African Americans, presaging and reflecting the mass incarcerations that disproportionately affect Black communities to this day. And when Holiday is arrested and charged for heroin possession, she declares to the court, "I don't need jail time, I need help," while earlier hoping that she'd "be sent to one of those hospitals, like Judy Garland." Yet Holiday is sent to prison, not only accentuating the issue of mass incarceration for Black people, but also underlining racial disparities in healthcare.

As those symbols suggest, there's not a lot of metaphor in this film. The only veil we're looking through is the veil of time, yet what's past is prologue. Although a lot of progress has been made in civil rights in the United States since Holiday's time, there is still a lot of work to be done in the ongoing march toward racial justice and equality. In a climactic scene, Day performs a nearly a cappella version of "Strange Fruit," each painfully vivid lyric delivered with laser precision to an audience living in the time of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks. The anti-lynching bill, now called the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, has still not passed in Congress. "Strange Fruit" is as resonant now as ever.

Anchored by Day's stunning performance, Daniels delivers a masterful work. Watching The United States vs. Billie Holiday is not just captivating, it's crucial. This film will break your heart. But it will transform it, too.

Official Trailer

External Link

The United States vs Billie Holiday - Hulu site

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6 Photos

  • 'The United States vs Bille Holiday' press image
    Director Lee Daniels on set with Andra Day during the production of 'The United States vs Billie Holiday.' (Takashi Seida/Hulu)
  • 'The United States vs Bille Holiday' press image
    Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes in 'The United States vs Billie Holiday' from Paramount Pictures, a Hulu Originals release. (Takashi Seida)
  • 'The United States vs Bille Holiday' press image
    Andra Day stars in 'The United States vs Billie Holiday' from Paramount Pictures, a Hulu Originals release. (Takashi Seida)
  • 'The United States vs Bille Holiday' press image
    Andra Day performs onstage as Billie Holiday in 'The United States vs Billie Holiday' from Paramount Pictures, a Hulu Originals release. (Takashi Seida)
  • Andra Day - 2
    Andra Day with The Current's Production Manager Derrick Stevens during Day's 2016 visit to The Current studio. (Nate Ryan | MPR 2016)
  • 'The United States vs Bille Holiday' key art
    'The United States vs Billie Holiday' releases February 26, 2021. (Hulu Originals)