Dir: Lee Daniels. Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund. 15 cert, 130 mins
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is compelling proof that a song can change the world. Recorded in 1939, it served as the rasping, heartsick cry of a Black America that lived with the daily terror of lynching. Its direct confrontation of white supremacy led Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun to label it “the beginning of the civil rights movement”.
In The United States vs Billie Holiday – a sloppy, reductive take on the singer’s life – the song is withheld from the audience for much of its runtime. At one point, a few bars are played before Holiday (Andra Day) is violently dragged offstage. Its lack of presence starts to feel intentional. Holiday’s commitment to performing the song in public made her a target of the FBI. And her use of narcotics gave them an excuse to hound her for the rest of her life. Perhaps this is director Lee Daniels’s way of making us understand the oblique form of censorship that followed the singer everywhere she went.
But then, an hour or so into the film, “Strange Fruit” steps out of the shadows. Day, known for the 2015 anthem “Rise Up”, performs it beautifully. But there’s such little fanfare – and no sense of the risk involved. It’s simply tucked behind a sequence that reveals the source of Holiday’s emotional pain. We see a childhood of neglect and sexual abuse, then the horrifying aftermath of a lynching. It’s a tidy, lazy approach to psychological profiling – a life reduced to vignettes of trauma. Music, sex, and drugs are sprinkled in, but with none of the verve that made Daniels’s The Paperboy (2012) a seedy delight.
The only hint at something more complex is the sound of Holiday’s brash, bitter laugh. We hear it first when a tactless interviewer (Leslie Jordan, with a wig that looks like a poodle died on his head) asks her what it’s like to be a Black woman – part of a framing device that’s abandoned as swiftly as it’s introduced. We hear it last when she’s on her deathbed, after the FBI tries to plant drugs on her one last time. Is this the sound of defiance? Personal triumph? Or an acknowledgment that life is merely a cruel joke?
Day puts her all into investigating the idea. This is a fearless, dedicated performance that never ties itself to perfect replication, nor skulks in the shadows of its predecessors (Holiday has already been played onscreen by Diana Ross and Audra McDonald). The power of her performance is in how she carries the singer’s spark – her resilience and her weariness all contained in an inquisitorial stare and a downturned mouth. But the film gives her such little room to manoeuvre. Suzan-Lori Parks’s script consists mostly of clumsy proclamations (“it’s a song about important things”, is how Holiday describes “Strange Fruit”). Jay Rabinowitz’s editing style – an erratic jumble of crossfades and montages of newspaper headlines – makes the film feel like a skim-read of Holiday’s life.
But the issues with The United States vs Billie Holiday are no more apparent than in the handling of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an FBI agent known to have had a sexual relationship with the singer. Rhodes may be a charismatic actor, but the film never bothers to interrogate the power dynamics at play when a Black man complicit in the oppression of a Black woman simultaneously falls in love with her. In fact, the film has the gall to present him as a curative force – her enjoyment of rough sex is something to be corrected with tender touches. Her bisexuality is muted. All she gets to do with Tallulah Bankhead (a wasted Natasha Lyonne) is go for a walk in the park. Holiday was never the passive victim. To suggest otherwise is an insult to her legacy.