It’s around 80 years after the release of Strange Fruit, the song covered by jazz singer Billie Holiday that protests the lynching of Black Americans and is highly regarded as the spark of the civil rights movement. Exploring the conflicts of Black political activism that other films in this year’s awards seasons have addressed, The United States vs. Billie Holiday revisits the career of the iconic woman and her battle through the narrative frame of the feds pursuing after her.
With singer-songwriter turned actress Andra Day helming the iconic Lady Day, Lee Daniels (Precious) directing, and Pulitzer prize-winning Suzan Lori-Parks, the film was anticipated to blow other films out of the water. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Daniel’s film tries to tackle two storylines at the same time: the attempts to suppress Holiday’s creative works of activism and her relationship with Black undercover agent James Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), resulting in The United States vs. Billie Holiday to be an oddly-structured film that misses its potential to be greater than the other films nominated in this year’s Academy Awards.
Framed under the guise of a questionable device through an interview between Holiday and a fan (Leslie Jordan), the investigation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and jumps around Lady Day’s life, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a Hulu original film, mostly takes place in the wake of the release of her cover of Strange Fruit.
The song’s popularity piques the interest of law enforcement as Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) believes Holiday’s voice is a threat to post Reconstruction America and uses the singer’s addiction to heroin to tell a false narrative to imprison and silence her.
What makes the song more unique was that Holiday was not the first person to sing Strange Fruit, although she is the most famous voice to share it. Strange Fruit was originally a poem by Jewish-American Abel Meeropol, which served as an outlet to share the horrors of the lynchings he witnessed in the south.
The song was brought to Holiday’s attention after Larua Duncan, a black vocalist and Meeropol’s wife, sang a rendition of it at Madison Square Garden, around two years after the poem was published. Like Meeropol and Duncan, Holiday had witnessed first-hand terrors she saw growing up.
Be that is it may, this is only half of the story that the film tries to tell.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday also tries to showcase the singer’s tragic background of her life that revolved around drug, domestic, and industry abuse as it intertwined with the tale of Strange Fruit. With scenes of her being beaten by men, her need to shoot up, and the numerous times where men in almost all aspects of her life call her derogatory names, the film sensationalizes her tragedy.
Grievously, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is structured in a way that it feels episodic. It doesn’t dive deeper into the singer’s struggles, a thorough analysis on what made her iconic or at least try to explore Lady Day’s relationship with the song that has given her so much heat and labeled as the enemy of the state in her lifetime.
The film doesn’t explore the experience of what it was like as a Black American listening to Holiday’s song for the first time in the 1940s and the initial impact of the community, which could’ve helped the film to go higher. It instead has the importance of both Holiday and Strange Fruit fall a bit short of reaching their full potential.
Although The United States vs. Billie Holiday has a confusing, messy narrative, Day’s impressive performance is worth mentioning this awards season.
Nominated for Best Actress for the Academy Awards, Critic’s Choice Awards, and winning it in the drama category at the Golden Globes, Day gets underneath the skin of Holiday in her first lead role and brings a raw performance that makes the singer both tough and vulnerable.
It’s also worth mentioning Rhodes also provides good moments under the role of Jimmy, one of the first Black FBI agents- a story that is worth exploring as its film- whose story arc focuses on the conflicts of self-betrayal to his race and himself while trying to make his community a just place.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday may be inconsistent and clunky at times, but the power of both Day’s performance and the subjects of Black activism and censorship makes the film worth taking a look at. As it tries to narrate the tragic life of Holiday, it ended up to be a sad film itself.
Featured Image: Andra Day on the set of THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Takashi Seida.