Updated: Apr 15, 2021
Looking back on Lady Sings the Blues and forward to The United States vs. Billie Holiday
In 1968, MCA Records released the vinyl "Billie Holiday: Greatest Hits!" The cover is a simple side profile of Lady Day, signature gardenia in her hair, lit up by a spotlight cast in blues and purples. The tracklist is printed in small lettering to the left, 11 songs in total to capture over two decades and 16 albums of work. Missing from that tracklist is the song that cemented her place in history as the godmother of the civil rights movement: Strange Fruit. Not even 10 years after her death, and the erasure of Holiday's complexity and legacy had already begun.
A few years later, in 1972, the world would see the first attempt to capture the legendary jazz singer's life on film with Lady Sings the Blues. Produced by her longtime manager Berry Gordy, Diana Ross gave a controversial Oscar-nominated performance that challenged many people's perception of Holiday and the struggles she had with drugs behind the closed doors of motels, bathrooms, and tour buses. Despite the many artistic liberties taken with Holiday's story, the movie was a success and remained the dominating narrative of Lady Day's life—until now.
Director Lee Daniels, perhaps best known for his films Precious and The Butler, tackles the decade leading up to Holiday's untimely death with The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, currently streaming on Hulu. Where LSTB ended with Billie's big comeback performance at Carnegie Hall, Daniels's film reaches this point around the 45-minute mark of an overall running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes. The film chooses to instead center the U.S.'s Federal Bureau of Narcotics attempts to dissuade Holiday from singing the song that would become the "starting gun for the civil rights movement."
In typical Lee Daniels fashion, the film opens with an intense, traumatic truth: a historical photo of a lynching. The photo fades and Lady Day walks on stage. The first few chords of Strange Fruit play, she opens her mouth to sing, and then—silence.
The song that drummed up so much controversy during Holiday's prime isn't given to the audience right away, but its political nature remains an undercurrent throughout the entirety of the film. As Billie Holiday (Andra Day) hops back and forth between a retrospective interview with the fictitious Reginald Lord Divine (Leslie Jordan) in 1957 and ten years earlier when her career was already well underway, a few characters often redacted from Holiday's life are introduced to share her spotlight.
Most prominent is the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Aslinger (Garrett Hedlund), and his newly hired undercover agent given the task of arresting Lady Day by any means necessary, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). As Jimmy begins hanging around dressing rooms and dog funerals under the guise of an innocuous journalist, Billie starts to warm up to him. The eventual reveal of his true intentions and subsequent raid of her apartment lead to the jail sentence and follow-up Carnegie Hall performance that Lady Sings the Blues ended with. Meanwhile, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday is only just getting started.
The timelines are far from the only distinction between these two biopics on Billie Holiday. After almost 50 years, it would be unjust to offer redundancy. Considering its 1972 release, the source material certainly challenged the status quo in many ways, going on to touch countless lives, Daniels included.
"Lady Sings the Blues changed my life, it was the reason why I got into film. Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross evoked beauty and were so excellent,"
says Daniels in an interview with TMZ's Raquel Harper.
"We had not seen a black couple like that before."
While Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams' on-screen chemistry marks decided historical progress in Hollywood, in the case of Billie Holiday, it did little to capture any of the singer's reality. The character Billy Dee Williams portrays, Louis McKay, was Billie Holiday's long-time manager, husband, and abuser. Yet, in LSTB, Louis is almost seen as Billie's savior, the man who stood by her side throughout all of her great success and even greater losses.
It's not unimaginable that to depict the reality of Holiday and McKay's relationship would have meant stopping the original film's production before it was even started. On track with the film roles being offered to women through the 70s, Diana Ross was naturally led to approach Holiday from a place of victimhood. With U.S. vs. BH, Andra Day tends to be taken to the other extreme with her performance, in what appears to be an honest effort to give Holiday back some of her power. In comparison to LSTB, it's clear that the updated version is trying to balance the scales away from the victimization narrative that Lady Day's story so often sees.
There are a few other omitted details from her story that Daniels tries to include. One is the relationship between Billie and her mother. While their interaction is a brief response to a drug-induced flashback sequence, the exasperated sex worker in an overcrowded brothel that we see push 9-year-old Billie into moving next door is the preface that LSTB avoided when they introduced Billie as a teenager with a devoted, god-fearing mother working as a housekeeper a few states away.
Another is Billie Holiday's bisexuality. Even though this topic is more controversial among historians, controversy is Lee Daniels' calling card. While the film does not explicitly show Billie in any relationships with women, it does include a character in the cast who was a personal friend, defining actress of Hollywood's golden age, and openly bisexual: Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne). The only topic that seems to directly contradict LSTB, is the tumultuous romantic relationships the new film does include.
Such a comparison to the original 1972 biopic is one Daniels seems to resent at its root, saying in an interview with the New York Post that his film isn't a biopic but rather an "espionage love story." The espionage side of the coin holds true with the intensity at which Billie is tracked by the U.S. government in the film. It's the love story that seems to complicate the film's facts from fiction. While the film does capture the often violent nature of Billie's relationship with men like Louis Mckay (Rob Morgan), it offers a flimsy romance with Jimmy Fletcher as a consolation prize.
Suzan-Lori Parks is the woman behind the screenplay for U.S. v. BH. Having written hundreds of plays and working alongside legends like James Baldwin and Spike Lee, Parks certainly knows her way around a story. When it comes to the controversial inclusion of the federal agent tasked with arresting Billie, Parks said in an interview with LA Times,
“Jimmy Fletcher is literally, actually an agent for the United States and [Billie] falls in love with him. To me, this is all about how we love this country and it dismisses us, and how for Black people, the fastest route to being an American is to throw someone of color under the bus. Whatever your race, actually.”
The inner turmoil Jimmy experiences in the film is absolutely evident, and his progressing romance with Billie also offers some deeper insight into the main character's complex relationship with love and sex. For all these merits, unfortunately, this romance is where the reality of Billie Holiday's life begins to blur, and consequently where the bulk of negative critiques begin to roll in.
It's important to note here that U.S. vs. BH is actually based on a book... Well, a chapter of a book… Well, about 12 pages of a chapter of a book… Well, about half of the 12 pages of a chapter of a book.
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, chronicles just that. The majority of the first section of the book revolves around Harry Aslinger, who deservedly fills the villain role of the new film. Aside from being the evil mastermind behind the war on drugs, Aslinger has also been endlessly proven as a vicious racist. While a big part of his career was spent instructing Fletcher to chase after Holiday, there's very little in Hari's text to suggest that the two of them ever set aside their differences, let alone led a full-fledged romance. All Hari provides on the subject of Holiday and Fletcher's dynamic is that they once were seen dancing together and that, years later, she sent him a signed album, forgiving him. A romance wasn't impossible, but it's highly unlikely.
The details of the 12 pages Hari spends documenting Billie Holiday seem to be randomly picked over by the filmmakers. Approximately half of Hari's research makes it into the film, leaving one to wonder what "based on" means by Hollywood's standards. Even so, if there could be one piece of the novel that served as the film's crux, it would be this: "In the years after Billie's trial, many other singers were too afraid of being harassed by the authorities to perform 'Strange Fruit.' But Billie Holiday refused to stop. No matter what they did to her, she sang her song."
The romantic subplot is undoubtedly the film's weakest link, what's more unfortunate is that it's within this link that so much of the film's attempt to humanize its titular character lives. While the fabricated POV of a federal agent might feel unnecessary, like it's competing with Billie, or even offensive to most critics, for this critic it added a necessary levity to the anguished tapestry that was the real Billie Holiday's life.
As Parks said, Jimmy Fletcher was real. His relationship with Billie Holiday, as depicted in the new film, was not. From a metaphorical place though, it serves as a complex view of how abused and oppressed communities often forget how to extend and accept love, instead of turning to more external vices. In this way, this dishonest Hollywood romance's injection into the story suddenly feels all too real.
In an interview with Ari Melber on the days leading up to the start of filming, Daniels talked about U.S. vs. BH, and the personal quality of his work, saying,
"I've tackled issues that have been personal, all of [my films] have been very personal, but I haven't tackled my sobriety yet. I haven't tackled what it's like to live sober."
He goes on to reference Holiday as a "force of nature," one who performed as a Black artist during such a volatile time in American history, living an experience that only a literal handful could ever claim to understand. For Lee Daniels, one of the few openly gay Black men in Hollywood, this story seems to come from a place of respect, humility, and, most importantly, as a call for justice.
Strange Fruit is a song that those in positions of power have been trying to suppress ever since Billie Holiday first used her voice to fill that silence. She also is a woman impossibly shrouded in the lore of never-ending hearsay, so much so that her story will likely never be told in its full truth. With this most recent addition to the lore, we see a film that simultaneously works in conjunction with the 1972 biopic—filling in the gaps, elaborating on dynamics, and extending the soundtrack—while at the same time contradicting it.
Is the real Lady Day a victim or an abuser? A hero or a coward? A sweetheart or (her favorite word) a motherfucker? The uncomfortable truth is, she's all of the above. Billie Holiday, like so many of us, is a walking contradiction. It's hard to imagine that in another 50 years, another installment won't be added to her story. Once again someone will go on stage, trying to show us what it's like to live in between.