The United States vs. Billie Holiday Highlights the Government-Orchestrated Attack on the Iconic Singer
One of the most powerful and influential voices of the 20th century will have her story told in the upcoming film The United States vs. Billie Holiday, directed by Lee Daniels, which will premiere on Hulu on February 26.
The film stars Andra Day in the lead role of Billie Holiday, Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher, and Natasha Lyonne as bisexual icon Tallulah Bankhead. Day is an Award-winning singer, and just from the trailer alone, she nails so much of Holiday’s look and energy that it’s instantly engrossing. Let’s not forget that Diana Ross played the role in Lady Sings the Blues and got a Lead Actress Oscar nomination for it in the ’70s. It’s a tough act to follow, but Day looks up for the chance to shine in her turn at the role.
Most importantly, the trailer highlights how the United States government itself went out of its way to destroy this woman because of her political music, especially “Strange Fruit.”
“Strange Fruit” originated as a poem written by Jewish-American writer, teacher, and songwriter Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. The song was introduced to Holiday and later recorded by her in 1939. The song became a political force of nature that helped start the Civil Rights movement, but also made Holiday an enemy of the FBI, who took advantage of her use of drugs to harass her and push her deeper into addiction.
Harry J. Anslinger, who served as the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, targeted Holiday for performing “Strange Fruit.” He took advantage of his position to attack her and other Black American entertainers with harassment and threats of incarceration. Memos from his office that were made public highlighted his racism:
To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. “It sounded,” his internal memos said, “like the jungles in the dead of night.” Another memo warned that “unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected” in this black man’s music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, “reek of filth.”
His work to criminalize marijuana, which he thought “slowed down your perception of time dramatically, and this was why jazz music sounded so freakish,” was done to target Black Jazz musicians specifically. His #1 target during his tenure was Billie Holiday. Anslinger will be played by Garrett Hedlund in the film.
Lee Daniels’ work has always been hit or miss for me, but I applaud his casting of Day and am excited to see Billie Holiday’s bisexuality explored in this new adaptation. Most importantly, I think it’s important that as we sit and have conversations about the government harassing its citizens, we remember the actual Civil Rights Activists who were persecuted for speaking out about lynching and injustice in their communities.
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