Day, in her first leading role, plays Holiday not just as a jazz and swing icon, but also as a
Civil Rights symbol, a woman persecuted by a racist federal government. “Strange Fruit,” her signature song, and musical protest of the lynching of Black Americans, was called a “musical starting gun for this so-called civil rights movement,” by a government office determined to silence her.
Using a framing device of a late career radio interview, hosted by a casually racist journalist (Leslie Jordan), the story quickly moves to flashback to reveal a campaign of terror launched against Lady Day because the feds were uncomfortable with the lyrics to “Strange Fruit.” The song, according to the g-men, is incendiary, a declaration of war, unamerican. “This jazz music is the devil’s work,” says Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. “That’s why this Holiday’s woman got to be stopped.”
The film follows the dirty tricks used to harass and harness the singer. Her popularity made it near impossible for the government to prevent her from singing, but well aware of her reliance on opioids, Anslinger focus on her drug use.
Based in part on the book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” by Johann Hari, “United States Vs. Billie Holiday” isn’t simply a show business biopic. The details of Holiday’s life are well documented and presented, from the troubled relationships and fluid sexuality to the drug use and soul searching that seemed to fuel her transcendent talent. But this is a dual story. Daniels dovetails the story of a troubled life with the governmental interference that made Holiday one of the first victims of the war on drugs.
But of all the relationships seen in the movie, it’s the bond Holiday had with her music that is most revealing. She understood the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to destroy her went far beyond putting her body in jail, they were trying to take something far more precious from her. “They want me to stop singing what’s in my soul,” she says. Muzzling her voice wasn’t about keeping her quiet, it was about taking what she meant to herself and others away. That “Strange Fruit” is still sung to this day, long after the war on drugs has been declared a failure is a triumph of Holiday’s spirit, even though that may be cold comfort to her fans and community. “Your grandkids will be singing ‘Strange Fruit,’” she says to the agents who harassed her on her deathbed.
Uniformly nice performances support Day in her striking lead debut. Vocally she’s a ringer for the late singer but the performance goes beyond mimicry to unveil the hurt that fueled Holiday’s personal and professional life.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is an ambitious movie that delivers more than a standard biopic.