BY Harmony Holiday in Opinion | 04 MAR 21

‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ is Trite and Muddled, but the Tragedy of Her Story Remains Real

Lee Daniels’s new offering is rife with the formulaic trappings of a Hollywood-sanctioned Black biopic, but what surpasses is the message in the music

BY Harmony Holiday in Opinion | 04 MAR 21

There are many ways to legally lynch a Black entertainer who becomes too political or too powerful in the eyes of the establishment, and federal law enforcement agencies have attempted all of them at one time or another. In the case of Billie Holiday, there’s the provocative irony of her having been legally lynched for singing about lynching, for singing the song ‘Strange Fruit’. It’s now in vogue – as if the FBI is a secret wing of Hollywood – to make films glorifying its plots to kill revolutionary Black artists and thinkers. The films typically centre the informants and are characterized by a deep ambivalence as to whether these snitches are heroes or demons. Often they’re painted as victims either of bribery or – as in the case of Jimmy Fletcher, the protagonist in Lee Daniels’s new biopic, The United States vs. Billie Holiday – naive attachments to purity and mainstream morality. Fletcher was an undercover federal agent who helped the notorious narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger hunt and entrap Holiday; when he realizes that Anslinger’s ‘war on drugs’ is less about heroin and more about criminalizing Black protest, he undergoes a half-assed reckoning and he and Holiday form a trauma bond that the movie calls love.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday, 2021. Courtesy: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
The United States vs. Billie Holiday, 2021. Courtesy: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The United States vs. Billie Holiday falls into every formulaic trap of a Hollywood-sanctioned Black biopic. There’s the minstrelized white interlocutor mediating the story for us, posing as an interviewer as the trope demands. In this case, he’s played by Lesley Jordan in a blond pompadour. He asks cutesy, baiting questions of Holiday – played by Andra Day – and we’re introduced to her through him. God forbid we meet her on her own terms. The dynamic is such that every character becomes a flailing puppet for his intrigue and the whole narrative is untrustworthy. Holiday herself would surely not have begun her story in the mouth of a strange and opportunistic white journalist. 

The version of the legend that we receive in Daniels’ film is dizzying and chaotic. Had I not read three biographies of Holiday and listened to her music incessantly before watching, I wouldn’t have been able to piece together who’s who in her entourage, nor where one lover ends and the next begins. Day does a harrowing job trying to bring Holiday’s soul and style back to the forefront, but she can’t do that alone. We’re left with glamorized disorder, fetishized trauma, helpless tragedy and a plot paced like an anachronistic slideshow. 

Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister, Downbeat, New York, NYc.1947
William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947. Courtesy: Library of Congress 

The film might not tell audiences much about Billie Holiday, but it does at least introduce them to ‘Strange Fruit’. Holiday first performed the song in 1939 at New York’s only integrated club, Café Society. At that time, it was hard to be Black in the US and not know of someone who had been lynched. At the same time there was almost no such thing as a protest song among Black singers: work songs and spirituals were our coded protest music. ‘Strange Fruit’ enjambed protest with the romantic language of the love song – ‘pastoral scene of the gallant south,’ its second verse taunts. It began as a poem published in 1937 by Jewish writer Abel Meeropol, and glides and shifts like the attentive eye of a close reader. The suggestion of ‘strangle’ in ‘strange’ has the eerie insinuative quality of the best page poetry and when Holiday sings the word, her neck hinged a little to the left, there’s a vivid sense of the sacrificial, that she’s leaning into danger. In that same way she leans into narcotics, to numb her emotional pain, to quiet her doubting mind so she can put on a show – and because she is a hedonist. Although she knew plenty of sorrow, her sensual landscape having been built upon the space between pleasure and pain from an early age, Holiday enjoyed beauty, luxury, social life and feeling good – music that makes us feel as beautiful and possible as hers does could not have been created by someone who didn’t.

Holiday was devoted and addicted to everything that soothed her. In the same way lynch mobs of her era were devoted or addicted to hunting Black flesh like cannibals and the FBI was equally committed to stifling Black consciousness. ‘Strange Fruit’ returns their gaze and the tormenting spotlight all levels of law enforcement impose on Black people. The fact that a so-called ‘junkie’ is its best interpreter only mirrors their own pathologies. 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday, 2021. Courtesy: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
The United States vs. Billie Holiday, 2021. Courtesy: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Eventually Holiday began to punish herself for singing ‘Strange Fruit’ so well. It was as if she wanted to destroy herself before the stigma of her childhood suffering and the federal agents determined to take her down could reach the part of her that refused to retire the song. It wasn’t just about protest, it was about agency, the kind of martyrdom that says: ‘The only way you’re going to get me to obey oppressive demands is to kill me.’ Nina Simone once remarked, ‘the protest songs ruined my career’. Maybe Holiday wanted to ruin her career so she could outlive it. No one knows what would have happened if she had been loved the way she craved as a child instead of raised in a brothel and raped and forced to adapt. And no one knows if she would have been healed if given the same treatment as her white addict counterpart Judy Garland, who was weaned at a string of private hospitals and sanitoria in 1947, the same year that Holiday was thrown into jail following the case that gives Daniels’s film its title. Lady Day – the affectionate moniker given Holiday by her best friend Lester Young – was lynched slowly and deliberately, not by rope and tree but by the unrepentant United States government, who framed her even on her deathbed. 

Holiday died for ‘Strange Fruit’. When others sing the song it feels a little counterfeit, her echo is always there exposing each noble imitation. The United States vs. Billie Holiday reminds us that she is still on trial. Holiday’s life, her voice, the bittersweet brittle and roaming tone she earned for enduring, goes on swinging, hanging, haunting. 

Main image: The United States vs. Billie Holiday, 2021. Courtesy: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Harmony Holiday is a poet and performer. Her books include Reparations (2020) and A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom (2020). Her latest book Maafa will be released later this year.