When Billie Holiday performed “Strange Fruit”, the lament about lynching with which she was closely associated from 1939 onwards, she always did so at the end of her set. No wonder. That charred, chastening song, with its images of “black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze”, scorches the air; nothing can follow in its wake except for shame. Nina Simone said it was “about the ugliest song I have ever heard. Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.”
In The United States vs Billie Holiday, which dramatises the racially motivated campaign waged against the singer by the US government, the film-makers face the same question of where exactly to place “Strange Fruit”. As the movie opens, the singer is beginning her run at Café Society, an integrated club in Greenwich Village. She has been pressured not to perform the number – the powers-that-be are concerned it will lead to unrest. “People are calling the song a starting gun for the so-called civil rights movement,” says Roy Cohn (Damian Joseph Quinn), who happens to be fluent in biopic-ese.
The director Lee Daniels has followed the example of Lady Sings the Blues, the 1972 film about Holiday, by casting an established music star in her first screen performance. Nearly 50 years ago, it was Diana Ross wearing white gardenias in her hair; now, it is Andra Day, known for her 2015 song “Rise Up”. (Ross won a Golden Globe; Day has been nominated for one.)
Her chief tormentor in this telling is Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who is gunning for her: “This Holiday woman has got to be stopped.” She can’t be arrested for a song, so Anslinger seizes the heroin-addicted star on drugs charges instead, having dispatched a suave undercover agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), to charm his way into her confidences.
While Holiday is jailed for a year, and is busy being hosed down naked in the time-honoured fashion of women-in-prison B-movies, Jimmy has a chance to ponder his actions as well as her needs. “She looks like a million bucks but she feels like nothing,” one of her entourage, Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence), tells him. “Billie ain’t got nobody. Singing is her life.”
During her next trial, Jimmy fluffs his evidence so that she goes free. Sent to tail her on her US tour, his surveillance morphs into romance. At the same time, her abusive boyfriend, Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), is persuaded by Anslinger to set her up. The man who should be her protector is snitching on her, while the one assigned to monitor her has fallen in love instead. Other men throw her against walls and mirrors, and pull her hair. Jimmy paints her fingernails.
[see also: Making Ma Rainey]
Did he also shoot up with her? That’s what the film suggests, in a sequence that blurs flashback and fantasy. The needle has scarcely entered Jimmy’s arm before he sees Billie, now a child, leading him by the hand into the brothel where she was put to work as a teenager. From there, they find themselves in a field where children are crying over a lynching. Say what you like about heroin, but it comes in handy when you need a dream sequence at short notice.
This is the sort of free-floating imaginative excess that comes easily to Daniels. His most memorable ideas have always been those high-risk ones that worked against the odds: Mariah Carey playing a social worker in Precious, Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron to soothe a jellyfish sting in The Paperboy. His strengths don’t really lie in the sane or the straightforward, which explains why The United States vs Billie Holiday only fully comes to life when it deviates from the biopic playbook.
None of which is the fault of Day, who is convincing whether she’s glowing on stage at Carnegie Hall or lurching scarecrow-haired and cackling in her hospital bed. But there’s only so much any actor can do with a line like, “My liver don’t work no more. They say it’s cirrhosis.”
At least Suzan Lori-Parks’s script (based – would you believe – on parts of Johann Hari’s war-on-drugs history Chasing the Scream) offers equal-opportunity clunkers. When Jimmy tells Anslinger, “You can’t take it because she’s strong, beautiful and black!”, we’re hearing dialogue written for 21st-century audiences rather than with an ear for how a 1950s federal agent would have spoken to his boss.
When it comes to the final test – where in the film to put “Strange Fruit” – Daniels seems, at first, to have erred. The song arrives around 45 minutes before the end, and Daniels closes the picture instead with an upbeat reprise of “All of Me”. Perhaps, though, this isn’t the sweetener or the compromise it first appears to be. In this context, that last number’s perkiness is rather undercut by its note of surrender and sacrifice: “Why not take all of me?” sings Holiday. And they did.
“The United States vs Billie Holiday” is on Sky Cinema from 27 February
The United States vs Billie Holiday
dir: Lee Daniels
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks