A little-known episode in recent American history is the subject of a new biopic. Libby Wadman has the details for this week’s Friday Film Review.
Director Lee Daniels, perhaps best known for “The Butler” and his Oscar award winning film, “Precious”, has returned with a fascinating biopic,”The United States vs Billie Holiday” based on Johann Hari’s book, “Chasing the Scream”.
“The United States vs Billie Holiday”, unlike previous films, “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Lady Day”, focuses on just the last 12 years of Holiday’s life. It was during these years that Billie Holiday became the focus of Harry Anslinger, Director of the National Narcotics Bureau. Anslinger’s primary goals were to end drug trafficking in the U. S. and to prevent the Civil Rights movement from gaining ground. In 1939, Billie Holiday released the song “Strange Fruit”, a haunting metaphorical description of a lynching, written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, who later set it to music. The song became very popular and given Holiday’s popularity it gained a wide audience base and gave credence to the Civil Rights movement. While there was nothing inherently illegal in the singing of the song, Holiday’s known drug use was illegal. The government, under the direction of Anslinger, went after Holiday. If she could be found guilty of drug use and imprisoned, she could be stopped from singing “Strange Fruit”.
Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks have done well to create a film that for the most part accurately recreates these turbulent years. The screenplay, coupled with a great cast and even better music, make for a fascinating watch, albeit one that is tough to take in at times. The focus on this portion of Holiday’s life not only lets the viewer see how her attempts to get clean were thwarted but spotlights a piece of our dark history that many still would prefer to remain unknown.
Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes, are superb as Billie Holiday and FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher. Day in particular is remarkable not only for her performance on screen, but for what she did off screen to nail the unique vocal qualities of Holiday’s speech and singing. As Day said in an interview, she lived Billie Holiday 24 hours a day and whatever she would normally do to protect her voice, she did the opposite. A hint of this devotion is apparent in a video, with Day and Rhodes, during the end credits.
The other key piece of the film is, of course, the music. Whether you’re a Billie Holiday fan, or are unfamiliar with her work, you will be mesmerized by the songs. The most impactful is undoubtedly “Strange Fruit”.
This film is not only important for understanding what Billie Holiday went through in her last years but is important for understanding why the Civil Rights movement came to be, and why, unfortunately, we still need to eradicate racism and discrimination in the American society today.
“The United States vs Billy Holiday” is a good watch for entertainment, but most importantly, for its accurate depiction of history. It is now streaming for free on HULU. It is 2 hours and 10 minutes in length and is rated R for scenes with nudity, sex, physical abuse, racist violence, and drug use.
This is Libby Wadman with the Friday Film Review, reminding you that film is always fun and fascinating.