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Billie Holiday, originally Elanora Fagan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 7, 1915. She was one of the greatest Afro-American jazz singers from 1933 until 1959. As depicted in the new film release, the United States vs. Billie Holiday, this celebrated, and talent-filled singer faced a considerable amount of challenges, and the struggle was real.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday was inspired by the written work called, “Chasing the Scream.” It is the life story of Holiday starring Andra Day, written by Suzan Lori-Parks and directed by Lee Daniels. At first, the movie was scheduled to debut in theaters on the big screen. However, Paramount Pictures sold the film to Hulu in December 2020 who in turn released it digitally on February 26, 2021.
The biography of Billie Holiday as portrayed by Daniels and Parks reflects her as a junkie running after a dream. According to the scripted duo, her life was no more than drugs, sex, alcohol, and abusive relationships that all encompassed her entire career.
Her singing career began in 1933 in a nightclub in Harlem. Along with Benny Goodman and others, Holiday was 18-years-old when she made her first recordings, “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law and “Riffin the Scotch,” which became her very first hit. In 1935, Holiday recorded a chain of songs that caused her career to skyrocket and deem her the leading jazz vocalist of her era.
Holiday had a unique and distinct sound that led her to stardom. She went from singing in bars and clubs to Carnegie Hall. Although a legend in her own time, the struggles that surrounded her fame were real. Holiday had an addiction to heroin that eventually led to her demise. Most of her intimate connections with the opposite sex were abusive, which stemmed from her childhood, and the explicit lyrics and meaning behind her song “Strange Fruit,” raised controversy with the U.S. government.
“Strange Fruit,” was originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol, entitled “Bitter Fruit.” As a song sung by Holiday, it became a classic. However, the words of the song painted a vivid picture of lynching and racism which was prevalent at the time, she was forbidden to sing it.
Regarding the abuse that plagued Holiday — it all began with an abusive, troubled, and exploited childhood. These things spilled over into adulthood. As a result, she found herself in the hands of disrespectful lovers.
In the movie “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Jimmy Fletcher, a Black agent played by Trevante Rhodes, was assigned to trail every move Holiday made. However, the film suggests that Fletcher fell in love with her and eventually lost his job — ending up addicted to drugs himself. Initially, Fletcher thought he was hired to bust and arrest Holiday for drugs and alcohol. Needless to say, it was not long before he discovered the truth of the matter. The reality of it all was she was a strong, Black superstar and a menace to the white, racist society.
“Lady Day” as she was so affectionately called, was determined to sing her hit song, “Strange Fruit” no matter the consequences or controversy. Nevertheless, the U.S. government was not about to let this public icon bring attention or shine a light on their inhumane and prejudiced behavior. Therefore, she became a target. They used her drug use to cover up what was really going on.
In my opinion, I believe the real and most powerful struggle of all for Holiday was her addiction to heroin. This unforgiving drug consumed her whole life. She woke up to it, she could not perform without it and she went to bed with it. Even after being imprisoned physically, and withdrawing from this monster — she eventually found herself mentally imprisoned with this lover until her death on July 15, 1959.
Written by Sharri Rogers
Edited by Sheena Robertson
The New York Times: ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ Review: Singing for Her Life; by A.O. Scott
USA Today: Billie Holiday: Andra Day on becoming jazz singer in Hulu film; by Anika Reed
Common Sense Media: The United States vs. Billie Holiday; by Monique Jones
First Inset Image Courtesy of Jacob Freeze’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Manuela Cigliutti’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of Mindsay Mohan’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License