The United States vs. Billie Holiday is based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, and is directed by Lee Daniels. The United States vs. Billie Holiday was initially set to be theatrically released by Paramount Pictures, but was sold to Hulu in December 2020, and digitally released in the United States on February 26, 2021. I didn’t think this new and very different version of the Billie Holiday story could surpass “Lady Sings the Blues” but it truly and brilliantly held its own. The United States vs. Billie Holiday was very sad but yet I found solace, as I watched knowing her pain is over.
During the 1940s, jazz singer, Billie Holiday (Andra Day) was targeted by the US government in an effort to racialize the war on drugs. Ultimately their aim was to stop Billie from singing her controversial song called “Strange Fruit”, which was about the lynching of two young Black teenagers by a mob of over 4,000 Whites. They took pictures and celebrated the event by ripping the clothes off the dead bodies and saving the pieces as a souvenir. Below are the lyrics of the song that kept the FBI in hot pursuit of Billie and led to her arrest.
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
While Billie Holiday was an addicted heroin user, she continued to sing her way into the hearts of Blacks and Whites fans across several countries. Billie had a hard life as a child and was rapped at the age of eleven, as well as abused on several other occasions. The film indicated she didn’t know what true love was nor did she have time for anything but drugs, singing, and the fight for equality, a side many never knew about her. The United States vs. Billie Holiday tells the complexity of the singer’s ups and downs during her short life of 44 years. It was no secret that the agent assigned to take Billie Holiday down, Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) was the racist epitome of hatred against the Black race and jazz. I highly recommend this film to everyone who wants to learn more about a great singer and America’s history during that time of Jim Crow law and how it affected her. Hulu reported the film was the most-watched title over its first three days of release, with Samba TV estimating that 287,000 U.S. households watched the film. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes determined that 56% of 126 critics gave the film a positive review, with an average rating of 5.4/10. The website’s critic’s consensus reads: “Although The United States vs. Billie Holiday often falls shy of its subject’s transcendence, Andra Day’s performance offers brilliant compensation. At the 78th Golden Globe Awards, Andra Day won Best Actress for a Motion Picture Drama — Check It Out!
[THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY is Oscar-nominated at the 93rd Academy Awards for Best: Actress — Totaling 1 Nomination]