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Arts & Culture

Andra Day Channels Billie Holiday In New Biopic

Andra Day stars as legendary blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday in the new Hulu film "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday."
Hulu
Andra Day stars as legendary blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday in the new Hulu film "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday."

'The United States Vs. Billie Holiday' is now streaming on Hulu

Companion viewing

"Lady Sings the Blues" (1972)

"Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday" (1990)

"Billie" (2020 documentary)

Billie Holiday died at the age of 44 in 1959. She leaves behind a legacy of great songs rendered in her uniquely evocative vocal style. But the new film "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday" (now streaming on Hulu) wants to remind us of the harassment she was subjected to by law enforcement.

Billie with a raw power and deep sense of having experienced every emotional note in her songs (whether or not she actually had). It is her music that has lived on but "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday" wants to highlight the challenges she faced because Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), appointed by President Hoover to lead the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, decided that she needed to be stopped from singing "Strange Fruit" because "it provoked people in the wrong way." He used a Black agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), to get close to her and to look to her drug use as a means of putting her away.

Andra Day Channels Billie Holiday In New Biopic
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.
Andra Day Channels Billie Holiday In New Biopic
Listen to part two of this story by Beth Accomando.

The film starts awkwardly with a white interviewer getting Holiday (played by Andra Day) to essentially tell us what the film will be about and the issues it plans to tackle. It feels like a strictly expository device to make sure no one misses the point. It then jumps to Holiday already facing pressure to not sing "Strange Fruit."

For anyone who does not know the lyrics, written by Abel Meeropol (his pen name was Lewis Allan), of this haunting, powerful song, here they are:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning 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 trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop
You can see how those lyrics could be considered provocative and they were made even more forceful when Holiday sang them. She wanted to sing them because she knew their power. But the pressure to not sing the song did make it more difficult to find places that would allow her to perform it. The fact that she did still sing it meant that the government continued to target her and eventually arrested and imprisoned her.

"The United States Vs. Billie Holiday" is worth seeing for two reasons. First and foremost, Andra Day’s stunning performance and gorgeous singing. Day has roots in San Diego. She sang at Chula Vista's First United Methodist Church and studied music at the School of Creative and Performing Arts. She anchors the film with a bold, compelling performance in what is an otherwise rather traditional biopic of the late great blues and jazz artist.

But I am a bit baffled by articles about Day "starving" herself to play Holiday. Holiday was not known for being skinny and emphasis on that aspect of her physical appearance seems inconsequential to the performance and painfully unnecessary for the actress. It is Holiday's voice that is so important and Day captures that well. She also conveys the passion that seemed to drive Holiday. Those are the more important aspects of getting Holiday right.

The second reason to see the film is that the film does shed light on the law enforcement's harassment of Holiday. That historical context to her life is important to remember. This film arrives alongside "MLK/FBI" and "Judas and the Black Messiah." All three level harsh criticism at how the government targeted people like Holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black Panther Fred Hampton. These films serve up an outraged trilogy about racism and abuse of power that still resonate today.

But as a work of art, "The United States Vs Billie Holiday" falls short. Director Lee Daniels is driven to deliver social commentary but his format is a conventionally structured biopic. He uses his film to make points but he doesn’t really give us a fully fleshed out portrait of Holiday. She’s there to serve his purpose rather than to live and breath as a person. He shows us the political importance of "Strange Fruit" but I wish he could have given us a more intimate perspective on how she found the song and how it came to be so important to her. I wanted more insight into her art and into who she was than this film was willing to offer.

This is a better biopic than the Diana Ross vehicle "Lady Sings the Blues" from 1972 but I do suggest supplementing it with the recent documentary "Billie," which is also flawed but which had access to hundreds of hours of interviews that had not been previously heard and provides better insight into her as both a person and an artist. But the film awkwardly tries to weave the story of the white female journalist, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who did the interviews in the 1970s, into the story of Holiday. But the documentary has some wonderful archival footage and images, as well as some fascinating and sometimes contradictory interviews.

Holiday remains a legendary artist and I am glad these films keep her legacy alive and try to shed more light on who she was.