The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Reverent ramblings

People are aware of Billie Holiday on a variety of levels. Most know her as the singular jazz singer, and many may be aware of her struggles with heroin addiction. Fewer may know about her being an target of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and fewer yet the reason for this. 

It was because she refused to stop singing “Strange Fruit,” a song graphically depicting the horror of lynching. The fact that the reason they gave was because it was “un-American” gives the movie a dark topicality amid today’s debate about Critical Race Theory. (I was appalled to learn that lynching was not made illegal in the US until the late 1930s.)

The storyline revolves around her relationship with federal agent Jimmy Fletcher (Travante Rhodes), who initially set her up and with whom she later carried on a tumultuous affair. 

The director is Lee Daniels, who has helmed such sensitive and insightful movies as Precious, The Butler, and The Paperboy. But this overstuffed biopic wanders more than a little, focusing on her addiction and the physically and emotionally abusive men around her.

No disrespect to the Lady, but these aspects are so prevalent in movies about dead artists these days that they’re becoming tiring I’d rather learn about her music and her inspirations. Or her activism; it could be said she kicked off the Civil Rights movement. Here her talents come second. The film also lacks a real story arc and a dramatic center. The time-hopping script is confusing, and Daniels uncharacteristically resorts to over-stylized cinematic tricks.

All that said, this remains a mesmerizing must-see solely for the committed, scathingly raw breakout performance by Andra Day in the title role. She nails not only the singing, but the attitude and the body language of one weighted down with more than a few injustices. Day is a new talent to watch. 

Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. (126 min)