Film & Television

Andra Day: A Star is Born in
‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’

Delayed by more than two months because of the pandemic, the 93rd Academy Awards will air (from multiple international locations) this coming Sunday, April 25th. Across categories, women are better represented than usual, with a record-breaking two nominated for Best Director — Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman and Chloé Zhao for Nomadland. Both are also up for Best Picture and for Screenplay awards.

The Best Actress category promises to be a close race. Frances McDormand, six-time nominee and two-time winner for Fargo (1997) and 2018’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is nominated for Nomadland. Viola Davis, four-time nominee and 2017 winner for Fences, is nominated for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Carey Mulligan has been nominated twice, this year for Promising Young Woman. Vanessa Kirby is a first-time nominee for Pieces of a Woman. And Andra Day is not just a first-time nominee, she’s nominated for her first-ever film role, as the brilliant, tragic Billie Holiday.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a long, dark, depressing movie that attempts to enlighten but actually exploits the darkest aspects of the legendary singer’s foreshortened life: her drug and alcohol use, the sexual and physical violence she endured in childhood and through multiple marriages, and her merciless victimization by the federal government. Although billed as a biopic, and including many breathtaking musical sequences and a doomed romance, the film too often devolves into trauma-porn.

But there’s a really good reason to watch The United States vs. Billie Holiday. And that’s its absolutely incredible leading lady. 

Day, born Cassandra Monique Batie and mentored in her twenties by Stevie Wonder, earned a Warner Brothers recording contract based mainly on her YouTube videos of cover songs and mashups. Spike Lee directed one of her first professional music videos, and her first studio album, “Cheers to the Fall,” including the anthemic “Rise Up,” was released in 2015 and earned the singer a Grammy nomination. NPR presciently described her as having, “Eartha Kitt’s unflappable confidence, Amy Winehouse’s effortless grasp of classic jazz, Billie Holiday’s access to raw emotion and Adele’s range and pop sensibility.” Deals with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola followed, along with tours and high-profile performances at such events as the 2016 Democratic National Convention. 

When it came time to cast The United States vs. Billie Holiday, director Lee Daniels was reportedly hesitant to choose Day because of her lack of experience. Her acting coach convinced him, and it’s to all our benefit; her raw and courageous performance is by far the strongest thing in the film. She’s already won the Golden Globe, as well as awards from the African-American Film Critics Association, the Black Reel Awards, and the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Despite the enormous talent (and far greater experience) of her fellow nominees, Day stands a solid chance of taking home the Oscar this week.

As Billie, she is tough on the outside, shattered on the inside. Day is raw and honest and unendingly courageous. She’s often nude, which might be distracting if her performance weren’t so naked, clothed or not. Every one of Billie’s mannerisms and glances is perfection; every song of Billie’s, and there are many, sublime.

After a painfully slow opening that includes a gruesome archival image of a real lynching and a title card about the anti-lynching bill that was proposed — and defeated — in 1937, The United States vs. Billie Holiday covers the years between Billie’s first arrest (1947) and her death (1959). Ordered by the federal government, local police, and white club owners to stop singing “Strange Fruit,” Billie resists. As the FBI, led here by a smarmy Garrett Hedlund as Harry J. Anslinger, can’t arrest her for singing (although they do, at one point, ensure that she can’t get a cabaret license), they can arrest her for drugs. She ends up betrayed by husbands, lovers, and undercover Black FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), and spends a year and a day in a women’s prison.

When she’s released, she goes back to work, triumphantly filling Carnegie Hall, but relying on heroin to do so. “Of course I’m high,” she admits to her new manager. “They paid for a good show.” Although the feds continue to harass her, she feels compelled to keep singing “Strange Fruit.”

“Wouldn’t your life be easier if you just behaved?” a flamboyant radio interviewer (Leslie Jordan) asks.

It isn’t that simple. “She’s singing it for all of us,” Jimmy’s mother tries to explain, disturbed that her son would be part of the establishment determined to silence Billie. Jimmy soon has regrets and eventually becomes Billie’s lover (and, notably, the only one who doesn’t beat her). Removed from his post and threatened, he stands up to Anslinger. “You hate her!” he accuses. “Despite all the shit in her life, she’s made something of herself, and you can’t take it, because she’s strong, beautiful, and Black!” The government’s worry that “Strange Fruit” has become a rallying cry “for the so-called civil rights movement” does indeed become a personal vendetta. And Billie, raped at age ten, prostituted at age thirteen, abused by almost every man she’s loved, and hopelessly battling addiction, is no match for them.

Except, of course, when she sings.

“Strange Fruit” was written as a protest poem and then song by Abel Meeropol in response to the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in 1930. In a haunting (if confusing) hallucination about two thirds of the way through the film, Billie is transported to that event after convincing Jimmy to shoot up with her. In the sequence, she’s overwhelmed by grief and then transported to the stage, where we finally hear her defiantly sing … 

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
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
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

As in so many history-based films, the final credits explain what happened to each of the film’s real-life characters. There’s also a brief interchange (including a clumsy dance) between Day and Rhodes. The comic and contemporary tone doesn’t fit the two hours the viewer has just invested. As much as we may long to experience some lightness and joy in Lady Day’s story, the truth — or at least the truth focused on here — is one of despair.

Since 1882, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills have been proposed, most recently the Emmett Till Antilynching Acts of 2019 and 2021. None has become law yet.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is available to stream on Hulu.

 

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