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The United States versus Billie Holiday: "It's complicated"

It’s complicated.

Those two words spoken by Billie Holiday when she is asked about actions in her life capture the essence of Lee Daniels’ film The United States versus Billie Holiday.

This is not a courtroom drama. The film depicts the obsessive pursuit of Billie Holiday, by the United States government, embodied by FBI agent Anslinger’s pathological hatred of superstar jazz singer Billie Holiday, due to her refusal to withdraw the song Strange Fruit, a poem about the lynching of black Americans, from her performance repertoire.

LYRICS: Strange Fruit

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

Source: Musixmatch

Songwriters: Lewis Allan

Strange Fruit lyrics © Edward B Marks Music Company, Marks Edward B. Music Corp.

Anda Day as Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit from the movie

The United States versus Billie Holiday | Hulu Original

Strange Fruit incited audiences of all colours and made them aware of the brutal deaths of black Americans, spanning the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

To the US government and Anslinger, Billie Holiday not only represented a type of person—drug user, black, female, strong, outspoken— but they targeted her specifically because she was successful, determined, black and loved by and influential with her fans. It’s complicated.

Billie is unable to maintain a relationship with any man who treats her with love, caring and tenderness. She feels more in control with an abusive man who exploits her even though she surrenders her freedom and independence by her involvement with these men.

When abused, physically, sexually and psychologically, she strikes back with equal force. Her feeling of control comes as a result of abuse and exploitation. She doesn’t know or understand when a man is caring, loving and tender. Tenderness is alien to Holiday.

We may comment on the horrible quality of her life. But again, it’s complicated.

Billie "Lady Day" Holiday & Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong

Strange Fruit and Holiday’s stardom are highlighted by her performances at Café Society, a mixed race club that identified itself as the right club for the wrong people. It also marks the beginning of her association and relationship with Jimmy Fletcher, a seemingly tender man. Jimmy is one of the first black FBI agents assigned to ensure that evidence is fabricated and narcotics planted on Billie Holiday.

He believes he is working to remove the scourge of drug abuse in black communities, especially Harlem, even though he, and other black agents are segregated within the walls of the FBI’s headquarters and treated appallingly. His personal and professional lives are compromised and contradictory.

It’s complicated.

Actress Andra Day plays Lady Day (Holiday’s affectionate nickname), a serendipitous match of names, and she is astonishing. Day sings Holiday's songs. There is not dubbing or lip synching. The music from holiday as channelled by Day is smooth, luscious and beautiful. Except for that one song.

Day isn’t acting as Billie Holiday, she is Billie Holiday. Day is gorgeous in a role that is a human tragedy with occasional touches of human triumph.

At her core, Billie Holiday is a strong, determined woman who is compelled to sing the defining song of her life, Strange Fruit, because it comes from her soul.

Billie Holiday, a star, isn’t allowed to ride elevators in New York City hotels, unless it’s the service elevator for the delivery of goods and supplies.

Fletcher is conflicted in his role as a black American FBI agent while Holiday is uncompromising in her approach to death by lynching of black Americans.

FBI agent Anslinger and his squad arrest Billie Holiday

She can’t stop singing even though it would mean she could enjoy a life unhassled by the FBI. Not singing the song meant she had to surrender her identity as a black woman and camouflage the atrocities committed against black families.

I’ve known Strange Fruit, the song, the lyrics and what it’s talking about but now I will listen to it again and understand more the impact of the lyrics and the horrendous effect on lives it echoes.

It’s complicated.

After watching The United States versus Billie Holiday, I wanted to go home and listen to her music. Billie Holiday’s singing is amazing. She was an astonishing performer, incredible person, suffered an unbelievably horrendous life, yet maintained her drive.

The film does have weaknesses. It feels a bit long when you’re watching it. There is a natural point where The United States versus Billie Holiday could have ended with all its messages communicated loudly and clearly. It’s as if scriptwriter Suzan-Lori Parks and director Lee Daniels had to reinforce the abusive nature of the men in her life, and her friendship with heroin and alcohol.

Holiday’s relationship with Fletcher in real life was uncertain so Suzan-Lori Parks and Lee Daniels embellished the story for dramatic impact. It is, after all, a dramatic film, not a documentary. The film hints at the traumas experienced by Holiday in her childhood that led her to use drugs to, as she says,

“take the edge off.”

All these messages are communicated in an unrestricted way throughout the film and the additional scenes underscoring the points

are unnecessary.

There are a number of oddly intrusive segues between historical black and white footage of actual events during Holiday’s trials and the colour film of the rest of the film.

Odd choice but it is their film.

Even with those limitations, The United States versus Billie Holiday is an astounding film covering racial, social, and cultural boundaries, civil rights, and human tragedy interspersed with human triumph.

I can’t remember the last time I wanted the film to pause during its screening so I could process all the emotions and ideas washing over me. And the hard-hitting images take time to process. Following the movie, I’ve also been reading about Billie Holiday’s life, her music and the background to the song that spurned it all, Strange Fruit.

The United States versus Billie Holiday is difficult, confronting, political, racial, contradictory, informative, emotional, powerful and insightful.

All together it comes down to two words, “It’s complicated”.


Please Note

The United States versus Billie Holiday contains blatant, graphic images of drug use, physical and psychological abuse of women and coarse language, including racist epithets, that are integral to the incidents represented in Billie Holiday’s life. You may find these qualities disturbing.


VIEW: Billie Holiday’s life and career (infographic timeline)

READ: Why the United States government pursued Billie holiday

READ: Review of Billie, a documentary about Billie Holiday

READ: Interview with The United States versus Billie Holiday director Lee Daniels

READ: The Tragic Story Behind Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit”

The way Holiday performed the song on stage was designed to have the greatest impact on the audience. Her live performance of the song is explained in this article.

READ: The Strange Story of The Man who Wrote the poem, Strange Fruit

You might be surprised to discover his political leanings and who his parents were.



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