Just don’t sing the song.
That’s the advice given to legendary singer Billie Holiday regarding her iconic single, ‘Strange Fruit’. Set against the backdrop of the pre-Civil Rights Movement era, Holiday’s heartfelt song the challenged the practice of lynching African-Americans became a lightning rod of controversy for the federal government out of fear that it could cause civil disturbances. Now, in Lee Daniels’ latest film The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Holiday’s ongoing battle with the FBI is on full display, showcasing the unique courage of an icon and the incredible pressure that she was under to conform.
Beginning in 1940s, the film follows Billie Holiday (Andra Day), the world-class singer of such hits as All of Me and Blue Moon who became the target of the federal government due to her powerful ballad, ‘Strange Fruit’. Although she was arrested as a part of the FBI’s escalating war on drugs, their ultimate goal was to prevent her from performing the controversial song out of fear that it may begin to bring (much-needed) social change.
Passionate and effective, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a testament to the resilience of a cultural icon at a time of oppression. Though the film is a bit of a slow starter, Daniels’ skill as a storyteller shines as the narrative draws you in along the way. Resisting the chance to portray Holiday solely as an American hero, Daniels gives balance to the starlet by displaying her flaws as well. Plagued by addiction and abusive relationships her entire career, Daniels shows grace to Holiday as a woman who has been taken advantage of since childhood yet never fully justifies her decisions either. Instead, Daniels fully fleshes out the humanity of a woman who struggled with her own personal demons yet also sought to be an example to a people who needed her unique voice.
While the film features solid performances across the board, it’s Day that positively lights up the screen as the titular songstress. Though only her second major acting role (Marshall), the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter absolutely owns the role of Holiday. Despite being central to almost every scene, Day remains fascinating to watch throughout the film. In many ways, Holiday was a complicated woman who commanded the stage to the public yet carried the burdens of her past in private. With this in mind, Day imbues the character with a complex mix of strength and fragility that somehow makes her feel authentic.
Set a decade before the Civil Rights Movement really began to take shape, the film focuses on the fervour surrounding Holiday’s famed, ‘Strange Fruit’. By calling attention to the horrific practice of lynching through her music, Holiday became viewed by the government as a threat that could upset the [read: their] status quo. To them, Holiday’s music created a conversation that they simply did not want to have for fear of seeing the current power structures change.
But the film points out that, ultimately, the song was not their problem.
Though other Black artists were deemed ‘acceptable’ due to their willingness to ‘play by the rules’ of the time, Holiday’s self-confidence and courage set her apart. As such, the greatest threat to the powers of the time may not have even been her music but her staunch defiance as a Person of Colour. (“You’re scared of her because she’s strong, stunning and Black,” says FBI informant, Jimmy.) While the song may have been the lightning rod, it was Holiday’s determination to sing it despite their pressure that caused the greatest issue for the FBI. Despite increasing pressure (and numerous set-ups) to simply ‘stop playing the song’, there was a bravery inherent to Holiday’s character that is put on display here. To Holiday, ‘Strange Fruit’ was a cry for justice. She understood that the song was important to the Black community so she remained unwavering in her intent to sing it.
When the government wanted to force her into their mold, she refused. And they couldn’t handle it.
In this way, The United States vs. Billie Holiday portrays Holiday as a person of passion and self-awareness. Though her personal struggles weighed heavily on her, she understood the power and influence that she carried with those who were willing to listen. At a time when many were being silenced, Daniels shows the starlet as a woman who was unafraid to speak up (or, more specifically, sing a different song) at a time when it was needed most.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is available on Hulu on Friday, February 26th, 2021.H