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‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday:’ Who Killed Billie Holiday?

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Content Warning: Drug addiction, alcoholism and sexual violence.   

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” a Hulu original biopic directed by Lee Daniels and written by Suzan-Lori Parks and Johann Hari, was released on Feb. 26 and chronicles the tragic life of jazz singer Billie Holiday. 

The movie follows Holiday (Andra Day) as she is targeted by the FBI for her performance of “Strange Fruit,” a song that placed a spotlight directly on the reality of gruesome lynching in the South. In one scene, Holiday performs the song to a sold out crowd — the room is filled with white Americans, encaptivated by Holiday’s iconic raspy warble and only now made aware of these horrific injustices.

In the biopic, singer and actress Day, who originally gave herself the name in honor of Lady Day, gives a moving portrayal of the jazz singer for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama last Sunday. With the same emotionless eyes, where Holiday’s deep pain and tragic history once sat, Day matter-of-factly delivers the iconic words from “Strange Fruit:” 

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees 

… 

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather,

For the wind to suck

For the sun to rot 

For the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop 

Holiday’s own iconic performance arrests. Just like in the original 1959 performance by Holiday, you feel as if a pin drop could be heard at the other side of that amphitheater in Day’s re-enactment. 

This was Day’s first acting role. Initially, Day was strongly against taking the job, despite being heavily influenced by Holiday as a singer. How could Day take on the monumental task of portraying this tragic icon justice? Yet, after deep prayer and meditation, Day decided that she was called to make a great leap of faith in order to tell Holiday’s story authentically with director Daniels’ vision. 

And Day did so, beautifully. 

The singer’s talent and versatility can be seen in her 2017 cover of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” 

Holiday sang not to impress, but to reveal a harsh and uncompromising truth largely hidden by the U.S. media and government. She outrightly rejected white supremacy at a time when stakes and dangers were high. Her song “Strange Fruit” protested, which ultimately led to Holiday’s tragic end. 

Photo courtesy of The U.S. vs Billie Holiday @USvsBillie/Twitter.

Holiday continued to sing “Strange Fruit,” risking her career and her life despite threats and aggressive efforts by U.S. government official Harry Anslinger to silence the singer — jail time, planted drugs and the revocation of her cabaret performance license. 

Although the film’s title is “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Holiday’s story primarily revolves around Anslinger’s racist disdain for Holiday and ruthless personal vendetta against the singer. 

As Timeline’s Laura Smith describes it, Anslinger was “a racist hate-monger [that] masterminded America’s War on Drugs” and was regarded as extremely racist, even in the 1920s

Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, was repeatedly raped at a very young age. She worked alongside her mother at a brothel and began using heroin and alcohol to cope with the violent exploitation she was subjected to as a child. The FBI used Holiday’s addiction as an excuse to maliciously hunt her down. 

Holiday was one of the first victims of the war on drugs. And at the hands of narcotics commissioner Anslinger, Holiday was restricted from proper medical attention and died at the age of 44 on July 7, 1959.

Comparably, when Anslinger learned of actor Judy Garland’s heroin addiction, he simply gave her a visit and advised Garland to take longer vacations. Anslinger’s motivations behind silencing Holiday are undeniably racially-charged. 

However, there isn’t much time to stop and reflect in the film, especially if audiences have listened to NPR Throughline’s podcast of the same name:  “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”   The podcast carefully walks the listener through Holiday’s early life and connections. In regards to the film, the plot moved too quickly, failing to properly establish the characters, their relationships and the implications of each event. 

Despite these shortcomings, at the end of the film, audiences begin to understand the director and screenwriters’ intentions in having the storyline move at this pace. Holiday is portrayed as having an upbringing devoid of tenderness. 

Photo courtesy of The U.S. vs Billie Holiday @USvsBillie/Twitter.

Her life is full of unexpected tragedy and trauma, which ultimately builds up to an incredibly emotional, climactic scene; the camera uninterruptedly follows Holiday in a dream-like sequence, beginning with her witnessing a burning cross, the heart-wrenching response of children seeing their mother lynched, her heroin relapse in a dimly lit room and ending with her performance of “Strange Fruit.” 

The audience comes to understand Holiday’s psyche and motivations behind standing up to white supremacy, despite the dangers it posed. It was something she needed to do. 

Holiday’s life was tragic and without reprise. This is the life that the film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” effectively portrays.

Jacqueline Lee is an Entertainment Intern for the winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at jacqusl4@uci.edu.