It’s a movie called The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, so you know there must be a battle at stake. And there is. Lee Daniels’ new movie, which stars a charismatically downplayed Andra Day as the titular, completely singular, and in many ways unknowable Lady Day, is set primarily in the 1940s. It tells the story of Holiday’s life and career in the wake of the song “Strange Fruit” — her elegy to Black lives lost to decades of lynching in the long aftermath of the Reconstruction — making the airwaves, filling concert halls, and pissing off certain people. Among the aggrieved: the U.S. government. And one J. Edgar Hoover.
So, no, this is no straightforward biopic. Billie Holiday tracks two stories at once, much like Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, which, like Daniels’ film, are attempts to unbury essential conflicts in the history of Black political activism and, to the extent that movies can be trusted as historical record of any kind, put them on the record. For all three of these films to be given such confrontationally binary titles — titles that evoke political warfare — is telling. It is hard to imagine an account of Black activism that isn’t, in part, a story of the forces working to suppress that fight — forces as pervasive and seemingly insurmountable as the nation itself.
Billie Holiday stands out from these other films for focusing on the activism of a Black artist — for, in theory, focusing on the art, itself, as the activism. Few works better testify to this than Holiday’s renditions of “Strange Fruit,” which frightened the establishment and moved Black listeners to tears and fury, not only because of the song’s lyrics, but because of the voice transmitting them, a voice that laid the soul of that song, the histories that the words could only name, open. A voice that strips any listener of the excuse to leave those histories unacknowledged — all the more so in the moment of Holiday’s performances, in which the wounds and terrors were still fresh, the bodies still hanging.
Holiday was not even the first person to sing “Strange Fruit.” In fact, the song began as a protest poem by Jewish-American songwriter Abel Meeropol, who set it to music. But Holiday’s rendition is the version that, like Holiday herself, and like all of our still-thriving misconceptions about her, has endured — for good reason. This is the other half of the story that Billie Holiday tells — or pretends to tell. In the way that we cannot tell the story of “Strange Fruit” without acknowledging the tragedies from which it was drawn, it seems we cannot tell the story of Billie Holiday without reckoning with the tragedies of her life: the drug abuse, the romantic abuse, the industry abuse. It’d be a disservice to Holiday, in fact, to ignore the realities of her life; if we claim to love her voice, we owe it to this once-in-a-species artist, whose powers defy and beguile us (even today) to love her, too. And in loving her, we owe it to her to reckon with her lived reality.
What we do with that reality, how we use it to characterize the woman therein, is where the trouble starts for anyone taking this story on — and it’s where Daniels’ film fails, and fails hard. You’d be right to anticipate a movie that shows, not only compassion toward the singer, who is clearly (especially in this depiction) heroic for her commitment to singing a song that the government does not want her to sing, but a little worldly wisdom. A little curiosity beyond the tragic sensationalism. Billie Holiday is the kind of movie that seems so eager to impress the importance of its responsibility to history upon us, a movie so committed to saying We cannot look away from this — we cannot look away from the heroin, the harshness, the cracks in Holiday’s image — that it practically forgets to say anything else of substance. A case in point: The film opens, with a tenacity that bleeds into punishing prurience, and then dwells on one of the most gruesome photos of a lynching available to us — which is saying something, given the utter brutality of this category of image. It’s a photo of the aftermath of a burning, of a Black life burned beyond recognition — no longer Black, but utterly charred, an artifact of complete erasure, all signs of this once having been a person completely lost.
Take that idea and apply it to Billie’s life — to her abuse at the hands of her lovers, to the heroin being pumped into her body — and you get what looks something like Daniels’ movie. Scenes of Holiday shooting play out with a played-out sense of necessity, a defensiveness over its own ogling. The result is a portrait of a woman reigned in and flattened, not by “history,” not by reality, but by a movie. Billie Holiday — Andra Day’s impressive and unexpected lo-fi approach to the role notwithstanding — is missing. “Billie Holiday,” a brutally thin sketch of the woman, is all the movie is prepared to give us.
Which is too bad, because the story here is an interesting one. Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes co-leads as Jimmy Fletcher, a Black FBI agent — one of the agency’s first, the historical basis of which is a story worth its own movie — whose job is to be the agency’s eyes and ears in Harlem and, eventually, to keep an eye on known heroin addict Lady Day, in particular. The agency doesn’t care about the drugs, in the movie’s version of events. It cares about “Strange Fruit” — and shutting her up. And so Jimmy infiltrates Holiday’s crew, becoming friend, then antagonist, then lover, then fellow-tragedy. Professional pressures from the FBI (most pointedly from Jimmy’s immediate superior, played by Garrett Hedlund) build in the interim. This, of course, causes Jimmy some consternation, the kind of inner drama that Rhodes is so good at giving us, a conflict of self-betrayal and betrayal of the race at large.
It has a parallel in Billie’s own dramas, the turbulence familiar to anyone who knows her story intimately or, at the very least, has seen Lady Sings the Blues. Andra Day’s performance, it should be said, is nothing like Diana Ross’ Oscar-nominated turn in that 1972 film. What this new performance does well is, among other things, imply the possibilities of a better, bluesier movie. It somehow modernizes Holiday — she could be our contemporary in so many ways — while feel plausible to the singer’s own present. It’s a performance which, at its best — when it’s allowed to be at its best — inspires curiosity about Holiday. Day attempts to find a way through a woman who seemed to be full of contradictions: vulnerable and susceptible but also steadfast, hard-headed; lovesick to the point of being prey to men who saw little value in her, yet also completely assured, in other contexts, of that value.
Making us curious about Holiday is, unfortunately, the worst thing its star could have done to this deeply incurious movie. You’d think a movie titled The United States Vs. Billie Holiday would be at least a little curious about the singer’s relationship to the song that’s gotten her in so much trouble. You’d think it would try to not only to document her refusals to stop singing it, but to clarify — not to explain, but to depict — this soul’s attachment to this blood-haunted melody. A trippy fantasy sequence in which Holiday stumbles into the scene of a lynching (a restaging, in fact, of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith said to have inspired Meeropol’s poem), which, through a magical feat of production design and editing, ends with Holiday onstage, defying political orders to sing it. The sequence is poorly done for coming off as a bit goofy, unconvincingly theatrical, in the midst of the film’s misshapen melodrama. But the thread it attempts to draw — from history, to Holiday’s inner life, to her political commitment — is conceptually attractive.
It’s a concept in search of a better movie, one that can actually do something with it. But that’s where the Daniels of it all kicks in. Instead of a study of a troubled woman whose political commitment to this song made her an enemy of the state, we get the troubles — period. An all pain, no gain, minimal-reprieve character study completely unaware of the ways its selling the singer short. And above all, you get a deep incuriosity about the song itself — its conception, Holiday’s love for it, and on and on. What was it like, as a Black American in the Forties, to hear this song? What did it feel like to sing it? Asking questions like these — asking any questions at all — might have lifted Billie Holiday a bit above its otherwise reductive, mismanaged soup of bad tropes, questionable themes, mounting miscalculations.
It bears repeating: “Strange Fruit” is a song which, like the woman who made it famous, openly mourns, not only the injustice of lynching, but the tragedy of the American political system’s utter disinterest in doing anything about it. There’s a fine-grained helplessness to this: to the knowledge that, rather than moving to quell lynching, the government will move to suppress the woman who sought to bring those crimes into the limelight. Holiday sang the song as if continued injustice were a foregone conclusion. She sang it such that it could see into the future.
And, yes, she was, in addition to that, a heroin addict, a flawed woman. That still doesn’t explain how Daniels landed here — how a film so ripe for getting at the heart of something about Holiday could somehow arrive so morally diminished. Daniels — whose flair for the sensational has led him awry in some cases, yet toward pulpy, fascinating, must-watch entertainment in others — is hardly at the top of his game here, otherwise. The director’s usual knack for charismatic melodrama routinely flatlines. His use of fantasy is deployed with grade-school ham-handedness; the drama is as muted as a color so dull no one cares to give it a name. The chemistry between Rhodes and Day is refreshingly sexy, at times. But like the film’s other virtues, it mostly makes you crave a movie more deserving.
Same to much of the rest of the cast, who all try their best. Hedlund is good as Harry J. Anslinger, an early player in what would come to be known as the United States’ “war on drugs,” and Rob Morgan — being Rob Morgan — is memorable. As are Tyler James Williams (Everybody Loves Chris), Melvin Gregg, the great Da’Vine Joy (so memorable in Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name), Natasha Lyonne as in a small role as Tallulah Bankhead, and Miss Lawrence (best known for being a fiery hairstylist on early seasons of The Real Housewives of Atlanta). Only Lawrence and Joy get to have any spark, however, and when they do — in some of the movie’s best scenes — it’s because, as comic relief, they break the film free from its rigid, regressive attitudes, giving us a feel for the life of the story, of these lives, before Daniels reins it all back in.
And also reins in Suzan-Lori Parks’ script, a further shame. Parks’ work has tackled women like Lady Day before — among them Sarah Baartman, also known, by a culture whose fascinated exploitation of her body rendered her into an object, as the Venus Hottentot. Parks is gifted. The playwright and screenwriter’s portrayals of Black women undone and done wrong by history and representation are usually vexed, discomfiting, confrontational. (For the best evidence, movie-wise, look no further than her script for the hard-to-see Spike Lee film Girl 6 — one of his best movies, in large part, because of the writing.) Parks’ ideas, the way she shapes them into language and action with the sharpest irony, are difficult undertakings for their directors. They depend on the director’s ability to keep up — and step up. Daniels, for his part, is not that director.
In her 2001 book, If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, author Farah Jasmine Griffin sums up our collective, infrequently questioned, image of Holiday in three words: “Death. Pain. Sadness.” Griffin continues: “How sad for us that this is all we believe we’ve inherited from Lady Day.” And how sad for us, and for the legacy of this complicated, inimitable artist, that we continue to fail her. That Daniels’ The United States Vs. Billie Holiday tells a tragic story is not, in and of itself, the problem; for the movie itself to be a tragedy is.