The United States vs. Billie Holiday opens with a contextualizing title card detailing the U.S. government’s inability to ban lynching outright, but bafflingly withholds Lady Day’s haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit” for the majority of its runtime. Instead, the overlong and tedious film opts for rudimentary Oscar-bait trappings and a crudely voyeuristic portrayal of the renowned jazz singer—a commanding performance by first-time actress Andra Day notwithstanding.
Based on a chapter of Johann Hari’s non-fiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, the film stretches a few thousand words of text into a punishing two-hour runtime. Despite the plethora of shocking and relevant details in Hari’s book on the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ obsession with nailing Holiday on drug charges, director Lee Daniels and writer Suzan Lori-Parks ditch these revelations, instead relying on fictitious, melodramatic fluff.
Initially following the controversy surrounding Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song which depicts the visual horror of a lynching in great poetic detail, the film becomes much more invested in Holiday’s relationships—both with heroin and Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). Fletcher, a Black agent, was used as a pawn by the Bureau in order to crack down on the Black community from within. Fletcher ratted on Holiday and landed her in jail for her drug use, yet Holiday supposedly welcomed him back in her social circle (and love life) without hesitation. Portraying this relationship as star-crossed is dangerous and ahistorical rhetoric which shifts the focus of the drug war from targeting an entire community to its effect on a single cultural figure. The film is infinitely more interested in transmogrifying Holiday’s legacy in order to make her an easy-to-swallow Woke symbol than it is in unpacking the systems in place that disenfranchised her so violently.
Emotionally raw yet structurally weak, the film often depicts Holiday’s trauma in an uncouth and even disrespectful manner in order to feign intimacy with the subject. The structure of the film itself is disorganized and erratic—unsure whether it wants to be linear or nonlinear—at times following a distinct timeline, while jumping erratically through Holiday’s memories and performances at others. The most illuminating example of this clumsiness is in the numerous sex scenes involving Holiday and Fletcher, trying to pass discomfiting tedium as a commentary on Holiday’s lingering childhood sexual trauma. While the film attempts to avoid offense through not portraying vivid reimaginings of the singer’s abuse, it still manages to assert a paternalism over Holiday’s (completely speculative!) sexual exploits.
The mythology of “Strange Fruit” in The United States vs. Billie Holiday is equally warped, with startling details about the song, its origins and eventual effect on Holiday’s finances all completely omitted from the biopic. Originally a poem by Bronx-born Jewish communist Abel Meeropool, the song’s royalties overwhelmingly went to the author, being the main source of revenue for his household (including sons Michael and Robert, which he adopted from executed USSR “spies” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Despite claims that Holiday helped set the poem to music, she received little money from one of her most popular songs. Perhaps the most lucrative way for her to claim the song was during live shows, where she routinely performed “Strange Fruit,” both due to audience demand and the truth to power it spoke: One of gross injustice against Black people. The film suggests that Holiday often shied away from singing the song due to fear of backlash or violence, but this is patently untrue. One scene depicts Holiday apologetically professing that she would not be performing “Strange Fruit” during her famous Carnegie Hall post-prison performance when she did, in fact, perform the song during this very concert.
The solitary instance that Holiday is shown actually singing “Strange Fruit” comes smack-dab in the middle of the film. This narrative decision leaves the audience bored while waiting for the song and unsatisfied after it is finally sung, yearning for the remainder of the film to hit anywhere near as high of a point as it reaches when Day performs. In fact, the rendition of “Strange Fruit” is one of the only instances Day takes center stage and excels without hindrance from lackluster writing or poor direction. And despite it all, for a feature film debut, Day is incredible—a force much too powerful for the confines of this sleepy biopic. It would be remiss for her talent to go unrecognized due to the shortcomings of the creative direction of the project.
A song as potently stirring and timelessly resonant as “Strange Fruit” should have been performed often and without hesitation, as that’s exactly what Holiday did throughout her unduly short yet greatly impactful career. It speaks to The United States vs. Billie Holiday’s neutered intentions that it would repeatedly shy away from the very song that its subject fearlessly and frequently performed. Especially when the film ostensibly has an underlying commentary about the hesitation to implement anti-lynching legislation on a federal level, why shy away from the music that historically sparked so much outrage among racists?
Director: Lee Daniels
Writer: Suzan Lori-Parks
Stars: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Miss Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Evan Ross, Tyler James Williams
Release Date: February 25, 2021 (Hulu)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.