The United States vs. Billie Holiday frustratingly refuses to go in-depth with any of its themes or the song Strange Fruit.
Andra Day’s gives a fabulous performance as the embattled Billie Holiday. With today’s technology, one could hold out hope that they could just lift and place it a much better movie. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is all over the map. The film has terrific production value and is beautiful to look at. The script, however, has too many subplots. It is filled with paper-thin villains, on both sides of the aisle. Perhaps most importantly, Lee Daniels’ film frustratingly refuses to go in-depth with any of its themes. It’s a shame Day’s righteous and raw turn is wasted here.
Elinore Harris, AKA, Holiday (Day), was at the height of her stardom in the 1940s. So much so, Herbert Hoover has taken notice. A young and, in a way, idealistic young FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes) is assigned to infiltrate Day and her circle. He reports to his boss, Harry Anslinger (Mudbound’s Garrett Hedlund), a real-life Bureau figure who was honored by John F. Kennedy. The goal is to target high-profile African American figures to ruin their reputations. Why? Because figures like Day are a threat to radicalizing the system. How? By refusing to stop singing her controversial song, Strange Fruit.
Holiday was written by Susan-Lori Parks. Her screenplay is based on the nonfiction book Johann Hari, titled Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days on the War on Drugs. The book is an overall look at Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. This legislation was a cloak for Hoover to run his smear tactics. This has been well documented, in much better films and documentaries (for instance, 2020’s MLK/FBI). Though, Day is just a part of the book, not the subject of it.
This is where the screenplay goes wrong. They try to create a faux romance in the film between Fletcher and Day. All while trying to fold in themes of institutional racism, substance abuse, and the staggering effects of trauma. The themes are used to add texture and not with any depth to add to the human element of the tragic life Day and her team led. This all plays like a musical without the grand numbers or entertainment value.
The final issue is the film only discusses her song Strange Fruit and does everything they can to work around it. Here is a provocative song about the lynching witnessed by Day and the film does nothing to examine it. This would have added power and even greater insight into the trauma Day has experienced that led to her drug use. For instance, Chadwick Boseman’s monologue in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This speech gives the film an unusual power and deep insight into the mind of a group of people who live every day in fear that they or the ones they love won’t see another one.
Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday could have combined a euphoric rush and understand how all these three themes are tied together with Ms. Holiday’s heroin use and the government’s hypocrisy of its stance on the war on drugs. A look at the hatred that was infused in policies written by and for the white middle class. How the use of heroin covered up the pain and grief of a traumatic existence. Some of this is touched upon without any nuance, but most of it not at all.
Even the power of art. Where a single song can expose you to a world that you thought you knew without a clue on the extent of damage it has done. A type of pain that is still felt today and you will never understand. Why didn’t the filmmakers here go into Strange Fruit with any aim at examining why the song was so personal to the famed singer? It’s practically an act of censorship. The use of it to just add color to the biography is questionable at best.
Let’s hope someday that Holiday and the story behind one of the most powerful song’s ever written gets the long overdue filmmaking treatment she deserves.