The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a biographical drama that explores legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday's struggles with heroin addiction and the U.S. government’s quest to destroy her reputation and career. The 2021 Lee Daniels film also focuses on the importance of Holiday’s landmark song “Strange Fruit” and how it shed light on anti-black racial terrorism taking place in the American South.
The film is based on a chapter from the nonfiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari. It was adapted for the screen by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. The film stars singer-songwriter/actress Andra Day as Billie Holiday.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday covers the years 1947 to 1959. Much of it takes place in the late ‘40s when Holiday was battling heroin addiction and alcoholism. She was also being targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) at that time. FBN commissioner Henry J. Anslinger, an avowed racist, launched a vicious personal crusade against Holiday. He used her heroin addiction as a pretext to silence her and prevent her from performing her 1939 song “Strange Fruit.” The powerful protest anthem describes a lynching in horrific detail. Its harrowing imagery sent chills down the spines of listeners whenever Holiday performed it. She infused the song with a haunting mix of sorrow and bitterness with every verse dripping with pain and heartbreak.
The song became a much-requested favorite at Holiday’s shows, and she defiantly continued to perform it despite many threats and warnings from Anslinger, who believed the song was dangerous and could incite riots. And he did everything in his power to prevent Holiday from performing it. He had the singer arrested three times and repeatedly attempted to plant evidence on her through his agents or her lovers. Anslinger was eventually successful in framing Holiday for the purchase and use of heroin–landing her an 18-month stint in prison and the revocation of her cabaret card. The federal government refused to reinstate Holiday’s cabaret card upon her release from prison in 1948. At that time, a cabaret card was mandatory for musicians and singers who performed at clubs or bars that served alcohol. This seriously undermined her career, as she could no longer travel the nightclub circuit.
However, that didn’t stop Holiday from making a triumphant appearance at Carnegie Hall just 11 days after her release from prison. This was her first performance at the fabled venue as a headliner, and she completely mesmerized the sold-out crowd with her incredible talent. She had three curtain calls during this historic performance. This amazing scene is one of the biggest highlights of the film. And it illustrates why Day was cast in the title role.
Day delivers a phenomenal performance as Holiday. She hits all the right emotional beats and commands the screen in every scene. She completely embodies Holiday–both onstage and off–in the role. And what makes this even more impressive is that this was Day’s first starring role and only her third film. The performance landed Day a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama. It also garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
The film also boasts a really strong supporting cast. Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) is a standout as conflicted black federal agent Jimmy Fletcher. He goes undercover as one of Holiday’s ardent fans to dig up dirt on her to bring back to his superiors; however, he eventually starts to empathize with the singer and grows to understand the reasons behind her addiction to heroin and alcohol; he learns that she uses them to salve deep emotional wounds born from an extremely rough life, which included abject poverty, sexual violence and prostitution. The character, who is based on a real-life FBI agent, even develops a romantic relationship with Holiday in the film. However, a romantic relationship between the two in real life has never been confirmed. Rhodes was an inspired casting choice as Fletcher. He and Day share amazing onscreen chemistry.
Another cast standout is Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Dolemite Is My Name) who plays Holiday’s close friend and confidante Roslyn. Joy brings an entertaining mix of toughness and vulnerability to the role; she also brings some much-needed humor to this serious drama. Also, Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black) is great as stage and film actress Tallulah Bankhead, who was a rumored lover of Holiday’s. Although a romantic relationship between the two has never been confirmed, they were definitely close friends until they had a falling out due to Bankhead’s insistence that she be kept out of Holiday’s autobiography Lady Sings The Blues (originally published in 1956). She even threatened to file a lawsuit if she wasn’t kept out of the book, as she feared it could ruin her career.
Some of the other members of the talented cast include Erik LaRay Harvey, Miss Lawrence, Tyler James Williams, Leslie Jordan, Garrett Hedlund and Evan Ross.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is overall a really good film, and Daniels does a great job of showcasing all of the pressures that Holiday was facing during that period in her life as well as touching on the historic significance of “Strange Fruit.” However, the film starts losing focus during its final third. The rhythm and pacing just feel off during this portion of the film. Everything is kind of disjointed and lacks cohesion. The momentum and energy that drove the earlier scenes are missing here. Nonetheless, Day’s superb performance even elevates these weaker scenes and makes them work. Credit must also go to the terrific supporting cast for bringing their best to each scene.
The film is currently streaming on Hulu.