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The United States vs. Billie Holiday: A Jazz Icon and Her Historic Song

“They don’t want her singing that song. But if she don’t do it, who will?”

(Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures)

I first heard the song “Strange Fruit” in my 11th grade English class. My teacher played it for us after we read the original poem it stemmed from. In a black and white video, Billie Holiday–also known as Lady Day–is at the center of the frame. She sings powerful, emotional, and haunting words that pair with a melancholy piano tune. “Strange Fruit” is a song meant to protest the horrific lynching of Black Americans, which mainly occurred between 1877 and 1950. The classroom was silent as we listened to lyrics metaphorizing victims of lynching to fruit hanging from trees.

In Lee Daniel’s film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021), we catch a glimpse of the history surrounding this momentous song and the musical heroine who sang it. It shows the lengths the United States government went through to silence Holiday, who they believed would be “inciting a riot” by singing “Strange Fruit.”

The film tells how narcotics agents stalked Holiday’s every move. Since they couldn’t legally arrest her for singing the song, they planned to attack her drug addiction instead. Set in the 1940s, these power-hungry and racist F.B.I. agents feared the on-coming civil rights movement and how the song was leading into it. Throughout the movie, we go on a whirlwind journey of Holiday’s fight against these corrupt and repressive systemic powers. We also witness her struggle with abusive relationships, a traumatic childhood, racial injustice, and her consuming addiction to heroin. But “despite all of the shit in her life,” says Trevante Rhodes’ character, Jimmy Fletcher, “she’s made something of herself. And you can’t take it because she’s strong, beautiful, and black.”

I always feel somewhat of a connection to artists I admire when I learn that they are from the same place I am from. Billie Holiday grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, my hometown. Driving down Baltimore City's streets, I see Lady Day murals plastered on buildings, wearing the signature white gardenias in her hair. While watching The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021), I smiled when she greeted guests from Baltimore and when she sang joyfully in a Baltimore club.

Andra Day’s performance as Billie Holiday–who inspired Day’s stage name–is a thrilling rendition of Baltimore’s golden-voiced idol. One of the most important jobs an actor has is to make you believe that they embody the person they are portraying. This feat is especially difficult in biopics. But Andra Day convinced me that she was Holiday reincarnate. Since this is her first starring role in a major motion picture, I am astounded by the profound intensity she brought to this film. I am not at all surprised about her nomination for an Academy Award.

The visual aspects of this film and the post-production choices also intrigued me. It almost felt like I was on a drug trip along with Holiday. There are so many editing dissolves where shots fade into each other. There are sped-up scenes. The aesthetic switches from standard cinematic shots to shots that seem to come from a vintage film camera. While I do feel that some of it is a bit much–the number of dissolves particularly–I appreciate the almost experimental style the film plays with.

Holiday’s story and the chaos that came from “Strange Fruit” has always captivated me. “Strange Fruit” is brilliant, and what amazes me is the amount of impact a three-minute song had on the American civil rights movement. The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021) does a decent job at telling this story for film audiences. At times, I did feel the storyline was a bit disordered. But maybe that is another intentional mimicking of Holiday’s intoxication. One element of the story I am conflicted about is the dramatized romance between Holiday and Jimmy Fletcher, a federal agent who is assigned to follow Holiday on her tour of the U.S. It seems too much like a Hollywood cliché, and it is not a factual depiction of the true story. But, I laughed at scenes that included Holiday’s obsession with her dogs. I cried at scenes that showed the brutal horrors of lynching and segregation. Overall, this film made me feel, which is a crucial element to any story.

(Photo Credit: Visit Baltimore)

I’m not sure if “Strange Fruit” is in the curriculum of most schools or if it’s just a Baltimore-area school system thing. But if you are unaware of the story behind this song, I recommend watching The United States vs. Billie Holliday (2021). This movie gives audiences a background of the issues and racial tensions that plagued the 1940s and introduces movie-goers to the role of Jazz music in the civil rights movement. This film also introduces audiences to important social issues that continue to haunt us to this day. It discusses the U.S. senate’s consideration of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act in 2020, which still, as of 2021, has yet to be approved.

If nothing else, I recommend listening to the soundtrack. Not only is Andra Day’s acting performance astounding, but her vocals are a delight. She sings “Strange Fruit” and other Billie Holiday songs with a similar passion to Lady Day herself. This film made me further realize the power of art and how it can transform a culture. It made me realize the immense power of an artist and her song.

“It’s a song about important things,” says Andra Day as Billie Holiday. “Things that are going on in the country.”


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