It’s hard to know how much of the The United States vs Billie Holiday is true.
If it is all correct then it’s a shocking indictment of the policies of the FBI in the 40s and 50s.
The movie, based on the Johann Hari novel Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, has as its premise a plan by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger to use Holiday’s drug addiction to stop her performing her hit song “Strange Fruit”.
Abel Meropol’s anti-lynching ballad had become a lightning rod for civil rights awareness and activism and according to the movie Holiday’s insistence on performing it caused great consternation within the FBI and to Anslinger.
As they couldn’t stop her singing the song, they instead used her drug addiction against her. Dirty tricks used included planting heroin on her, trying to get her friends to turn against her and sending in an FBI agent to spy on her.
Equally as shocking as the Government’s treatment of her was her betrayal by the men she associated with including black FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher who was specifically tasked to get close to her.
It’s impossible to know if, as portrayed in the movie, Fletcher fell in love with Holiday, but there’s no doubting he initially set her up. His actions resulted in her being sentenced to a year and a day in jail, a sentence that greatly impacted on her ability to work.
Fletcher was one of many men who, during the movie, physically, emotionally and/or financially abused Holiday.
While The United States vs Billie Holiday concentrates on her career from her early 30s, flashbacks ensure we learn of Holiday’s traumatic upbringing which included being raped at an early age.
The movie also doesn’t explore her discovery as a singer, instead highlighting the 40s and 50s before and after her arrests for heroin use and her death at the age of 44 in 1959.
We relive her successes on stage, which included performing at Carnegie Hall, and see the hold heroin had over her and the tragic consequences of her inability to break the habit.
There’s no doubting the highlight of United States vs Billie Holiday is the performance of Andra Day.
It’s hard to believe Day had never acted before. She dominates the screen and is equally believable as a glamorous stage performer, a jail inmate and heroin addict.
While at times treated appallingly, Day’s Holiday still shows strength in some areas, such as her determination to sing what she wants, and occasionally standing up to the men who treated her so badly.
Day’s singing is as impressive as her acting, spectacularly capturing Holiday’s voice both at the height of her career and towards the end when it changed due to the impact of her lifestyle. It’s easy to see why Day won a Golden Globe award for the best actress in a drama movie. She has also been nominated for an Academy Award.
Trevante Rhodes is believable as the conflicted Jimmy Fletcher as is Garrett Hedlund as the unpleasant Harry Anslinger.
They’re well supported by Tyler James Williams as saxophonist Lester Young and Miss Lawrence and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Holiday’s assistants Miss Freddy and Roslyn.
The film, directed by Lee Daniels, is framed by an interview conducted by Reginald Lord Divine (Leslie Jordan) and includes a series of flashbacks.
While this is sometimes confusing I certainly learnt more about Holiday than I ever knew. If it’s all correct then she truly had a very sad life given much of it was spent being used and abused by the political system and the men who professed to care for her.
The United States vs Billie Holiday opens nationally on Thursday May 22.
*Photo Credit: Takashi Seida.
- movie, review
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