It started as a protest poem then became a song written by a white teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropo, who was horrified by a picture of a lynching. “Strange Fruit” was first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.
The heavy, haunting, pungent lyrics never mention lynching, but they draw a dark and inescapable metaphor nonetheless: “Black body swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The song’s imagery was disturbing enough at a time when White America still mostly avoided talking about such things. But once the song became Holiday’s signature number—no matter how many romantic ballads she sang in a night, she often ended on this harrowing note—and Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger discovered Holiday was an addict, he resolved to destroy her. Eventually, he succeeded.
That is the story behind Lee Daniel’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday, currently airing on Hulu, and it should be a scorcher. But despite having this rich seam of painfully relevant material to work from, the auteur of such gimmicky melodramas as Empire and The Butler never finds the right angle from which to approach the subject. It’s a shame because a better film could have drawn more people to this strange, disturbing, and demented true story.
Like Shaka King’s far superior Judas and the Black Messiah, Daniels’ film is in part the story of a Black icon who is approached and ultimately betrayed by a Black man sent on his mission by a single-minded law enforcement agency. Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) was the real-life narcotics agent who we see hanging around Café Society in 1947 watching an already battered-by-life Holiday and trying to insinuate himself into her inner circle. At that point, Holiday—played by singer Andra Day with a committed but somewhat one-dimensional toughness—is surrounded by hangers-on who never run out of ways to undermine, degrade, and steal from her.
Eventually, Fletcher works his way inside. In short order, they fall in love, and Holiday, whose drinking and various drug addictions were likely self-medication to manage the trauma of the sexual abuse in her past, is arrested on narcotics charges with his help. Fletcher’s divided loyalties are spoken of but Rhode’s flat performance hardly hints at much of an internal struggle.
The story that follows hops around somewhat in time over a roughly 20-year period, linked only slightly by a framing device where Holiday is being interviewed by a gossipy celebrity radio host (Leslie Jordan, camping it up). As we follow Holiday’s struggles with drugs and thieving managers who were also often abusive partners, she is hounded at every turn by the federal apparatus behind Fletcher. There are a few glorious highs in the moments when Holiday dodges enough obstacles to be allowed to shine, such as her 1948 Carnegie Hall concert. Day does not register a great deal of variety in her acting. But when she lets her full vocal range unfurl on stage, it’s a lovely approximation of Holiday’s singing that works not as an imitation but a channeling of her tone’s quirky and wearied vulnerability.
For the most part, though, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is about an already wounded woman being hunted to her death. The establishment villains behind it are a deranged lot, particularly Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), whose racism and prohibition mania made Holiday a singular fixation. Despite the absurdity of the federal government wasting untold resources on chasing down a jazz singer only to ultimately plant drugs on her, the details follow the historical record with decent fidelity. The real Anslinger was a true race panic fanatic, who blamed addiction on minorities and thought the lives of jazz performers “reeked of filth”. But in Daniels’ paper-thin rendering, the whole backstory is curiously unconvincing. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be surprising if some viewers left this film assuming it was largely fictional, given the cartoonish tone.
Although the screenplay by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted Johann Hari’s source novel, has few memorable moments, at the very least it does not try to streamline Holiday’s life into a celebrity addict’s rise and fall narrative. Dropping us into her life with little preamble and containing only a brief flashback to the horror of her childhood, the film takes the episodic approach familiar from Parks’ work. Snippets of story paint a picture of despondency and self-destruction, with federal agents hounding and arresting her while she scrambles to scrape together a living.
Holiday continually comes back to the worst men she can find, like her semi-gangster husband Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), who is hardly ever on screen except when beating her. Day’s look of wounded resignation is consistent throughout, and while it does not allow for much dramatic variety, it does at least provide the appropriate backdrop for the scene where Daniels pointedly includes Holiday singing the seemingly autobiographical “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” (“Well I’d rather my man would hit me / Than for him to jump up and quit me”).
Substantively truthful but artistically false, The United States vs. Billie Holiday shines a light on an American tragedy at such an angle that drains it of most any human drama.