How much did I love THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY?
Well, I went right on down to my library and checked out the book it’s based on.
How much did everyone else love it?
I’m not even joking: the cinema burst into applause as the final credits rolled.
THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY is not your usual biography film. It’s actually based on a chapter of ‘Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’ by Johann Hari. So the story isn’t just about how brave or talented Billie Holiday was: it’s about how much she needed help.
I’m so glad this film avoids the usual biography trap of making its subject too virtuous. This Billie Holiday is messy. She’s easy to love, but difficult to like. It’s a bold choice: to make your main character unpopular. Lead actress Andra Day does an amazing job portraying this complicated mix of passion, talent, and rage.
And when she sings, she sounds like Billie Holiday come to life!
Her rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ is perfection:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
‘Strange Fruit’ was Billie Holiday’s signature song. It brought audiences face to face with the reality of lynching. These were brutal, public murders, committed by white crowds, against Black Americans. I cannot overemphasise the violence of these crimes, nor the importance of this song. It lit a fire for the Civil Rights Movement. It made Billie Holiday a legend. And it completely destroyed her.
See, ‘Strange Fruit’ brought Holiday to the attention of FBI Narcotics Commissioner, Harry J. Anslinger. He hated jazz, and he hated drugs. Billie Holiday was a heroin addict, as well as a jazz artist. So he made it his mission to arrest, prosecute, imprison, silence, and ruin Billie Holiday.
What follows next will break your heart.
Director Lee Daniels makes some bold choices. There’s no linear plot, and the narrator is decidedly unreliable. The scenes bleed into one another, mixing fantasy with reality. The film changes from a regular film, to grainy newsreel footage, to black and white film.
The result is jarring and confusing. But I think it makes sense. Billie Holiday lived a traumatic life, and she spent a lot of it self medicating. Drugs and trauma can change memories, and alter time. The film captures that.
A final point to say that this movie is worth watching for the costumes, hair, and makeup alone. Designer Paolo Nieddu collaborated with Prada to recreate Billie Holiday’s iconic looks. And the level of detail is mind-blowing! Right down to Billie Holiday’s nails. She sports what’s called a ‘triangle half moon’ manicure. If you’re a fan of 1940’s fashion, this film is a must watch.
THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY is not an easy film to watch. The stories are distressing, and the plot can be confusing. But if you’re willing to give it a go, you’ll learn, you’ll laugh, and you’ll cry.
And with Andra Day singing as Billie Holiday, ‘Strange Fruit’ will stay with you for weeks afterwards…