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In the first scene, the title slide, “United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” appears over a photo of white men posing in front of a burning Black body reads, then the viewers see: “In 1937 A Bill To Finally Ban The Lynching Of African-Americans Was Considered By The Senate. It Did Not Pass.” It almost serves as a warning for the movie they are about to watch.
“United States Vs. Billie Holiday” was released on February 26, 2021. In the film, award-winning actress, singer, and songwriter Andra Day portrays the legendary jazz vocalist with grit, fire, and passion.
The movie is based on a 2015 nonfiction book by Johann Hari, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” The film’s narrative is shared through the lens of the singer’s experiences from being a survivor of rape as a child and using her addiction to cope with her hard life. She wore long-length gloves to cover up the track marks on her arms.
At times it is painful to watch as Holiday navigates so much hardship. The film portrays the gutwrenching ongoing domestic abuse she experienced at the hands of different men. In a particularly violent scene, Holiday is brutally beaten by her boyfriend and club owner John Levy and later performs high and in pain after being stitched up by her friend Roslyn. Throughout Holiday’s career, she was also taken advantage of by the many men in her life as they profited off of her immense talent.
Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), had a personal vendetta against Holiday. In the film, he uses all the government resources at his disposal to harass and intimidate her into forcing her to stop singing “Strange Fruit” to no avail.
At the beginning of the film, he has a meeting in Washington, DC, with what appears to be white U.S. congressmen and asks for their help to get his budget increase passed through congress. His white supremacy is on full display, and he defends the budget increase by saying, “Drugs and niggers are a contamination to our great American civilization.” This tells the audience everything they need to know about him.
Anslinger then strategizes how to take down Holiday like she is some big bad villain. He uses Holiday’s addiction against her and her bad relationships with men to entrap her. The FBN hires a Black man named Jimmy Fletcher to ensnare Holiday. He is fueled by his disdain for drugs and his fruitless quest for acknowledgment and power within the FBN. Later in the film, he falls in love with Holiday and warns her about Aislinger’s ongoing plan to bring her down. He later regrets his actions in the FBN. However, by then, it is too late.
Even as Holiday lay in her hospital bed in pain, denied methadone, not being able to see her loved ones, she was still considered a threat. As she is dying from liver failure, Anslinger sets up a sting operation and visits her personally in the hospital to coerce her to stop singing “Strange Fruit.” Defiant and fearless as ever, she warns Anslinger that “his grandkids will be singing Strange Fruit.” The film then pans to a closeup of her feet being shackled to the hospital bed and the text that narcotics agents claiming to have found heroin on her in the hospital arrest her as she lay dying.
The film is emotionally taxing, to say the least. Harry Anslinger was given carte blanc to demonize and terrorize Holiday. It is enraging watching her battle her drug addiction as she copes with the ongoing government harassment, childhood trauma, domestic violence, and just existing as a Black woman in America who had the audacity to speak out against the horrendous lynchings of Black men, women, and children.
“Southern trees bear 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,” “Strange Fruit” is just as relevant today as it was back then. As one faces the modern-day lynchings of Black men, women, and children at the hands of police violence and white supremacists, Black blood is still flowing in the streets. Billie Holiday deserved better as a Black American woman. The men in Holiday’s life failed her just as much as the country where she was born that waged a campaign to destroy her. “United States Vs. Billie Holiday” can be streamed on HULU.
Written by Ebonee Stevenson
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware
Los Angeles Times: What really happened when federal officers persecuted Billie Holiday; by Randall Roberts
Images Courtesy of Jenn Kriscunas’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License