Billie Holiday was one of the most controversial and influential artists of her time. On April 7, 1915, Holiday was born to a teenaged mother and an estranged father. So, early in her life, she faced challenges. At ten or eleven years old, she was reportedly sexually assaulted, according to Biography.com. They added that, “she found solace in music, singing along to the records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.”
After following her mother to New York City, she began singing in night clubs, where she would be discovered at 18 years old. This set the stage for a promising career. In 1937, she joined Count Basie’s band with Lester Young, whom she affectionately dubbed “Prez” because she saw him as the President of the saxophone, Biography.com wrote.
She went on to join Artie Shaw’s band. As a member of the band, Holiday faced racial discrimination from white promoters who did not want to see a Black woman perform.
Yet, this did not stop Holiday.
She continued performing for New York’s Café Society and donned a signature gardenia in her hair and tilted her head back when performing. As she wowed audiences with her unique vocals, Holiday would garner attention in a different way as well.
In 1939, she recorded “Strange Fruit,” a song that would define her career. Due to its graphic depiction of lynching in the South, Holiday was repeatedly asked to stop singing the song, but she would not. Because of Holiday’s reluctance to stop singing the song, she became a target of the FBI and Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of its narcotics division at the time.
According to Time Magazine, Anslinger was “the person most synonymous with the phrase ‘war on drugs’—in fact, the first person to use it.” Although Anslinger is said to have saved lives, his “racial prejudices” prevented him from applying the law equally to people using drugs, they added.
For example, Judy Garland and Billie Holiday both had addictions. For Garland, Anslinger suggested treatment, while he arrested Billie multiple times for drug use, once on her death bed. Based on this unequal treatment and him using the n-word and being quoted as calling Black people “darkies,” Anslinger was a racist.
Really, his tiffs with Billie Holiday were race-based; he used her addiction to justify his racialized terror against her. In one move, Anslinger had Billie arrested for heroin use after James Fletcher, a Black informant, fed information to him. Subsequently, Holiday was put on trial, and the case was called, “The United States of America versus Billie Holiday.”
According to Politico, Holiday said, “[T]hat’s just the way it felt.” Years later, a film called U.S. vs. Billie Holiday was released. While the title suggests that this will be a film about Holiday's trial, it becomes a small part of the movie. Throughout most of the film, Holiday’s drug use is explored, which some found distasteful.
For Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote, “Instead of a study of a troubled woman whose political commitment to this song made her an enemy of the state, we get the troubles — period.”
After watching the film, I would concur. For one, the storyline jumped around. There were so many years compounded into a two hour movie that we never got a chance to sit with any storyline too long. Moreover, Billie’s romantic and sexual relationships – a central focus of the film – were inadequately explored. Aside from her relationship with James Fletcher, many of these situations are limited to a few scenes, after which the characters disappear, and we never hear about them again.
This was one qualm I had with the film. A related qualm is the lack of exploration of Holiday’s sexuality. It is mentioned, but it is never explored. With many themes, outside of her drug use, they are introduced without nuance. A third example of this is Holiday’s experiences as a survivor.
Her rape is mentioned (by someone else), and the filmmakers do not probe how being abused at such a young age could have led to the drug use and toxic behavioral patterns. However, this was not the only of the film’s shortcomings.
Another is its digression from the central theme: Holiday’s song. Its title comes from the time Holiday had to stand trial because the government didn’t like her song “Strange Fruit,” yet this trial is just a minor detail in the story. Furthermore, the film fails to delve into the inception of “Strange Fruit,” as opposed to focusing on the reception.
Austin Collins noted, “What was it like, as a Black American in the Forties, to hear this song? What did it feel like to sing it? Asking questions like these — asking any questions at all — might have lifted Billie Holiday a bit above its otherwise reductive, mismanaged soup of bad tropes, questionable themes, mounting miscalculations.”
Nonetheless, the film had a few redeeming qualities. For one, Andra Day gave a stellar performance as Billie Holiday. She earned aGolden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama. From the voice to the mannerisms, Day embodied Holiday’s essence. Additionally, the cinematography was a redeemable quality. At certain points, the movie toggled between Black and white and colored images, which created a sense of history mixed with reality.
Despite these reedemable qualities, the film did its muse and all-star cast no justice. Overall, it was a bad movie shot beautifully. ~ℝ
Javanna Plummer, Rwebel in Chief
Javanna is the editor of "Rwebel Magazine," the architect behind "Rwebel Radio," and the pioneering force of "Xscape." Through her words, Javanna hopes to inspire creativity, passion and forward-thinking
Rwebel Mag publishes stories across the journalistic spectrum that give a thoughtful glance at culture and difference.