In the last week of Black History Month this year, Hulu released “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.” This film revolves around the singer, Billie Holiday (Andra Day), and the controversies that surrounded her most famous and powerful song “Strange Fruit,” which vividly describes a lynching. This movie emphasizes her struggles with law enforcement officers throughout her life as they try to stop her from singing by catching her on drug possession charges.
The tragedy in this film is derived from the constant obstacles that are thrown in Holiday’s way because she’s black and successful, yet also just an ordinary woman who is emotionally scarred. Her song not only reflects her own pain, but it incites so much anger and sadness inside the hearts of all African Americans that are treated unfairly because of their skin color. If the film makes one thing clear, it’s that “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s most important song of her career, was never an easy song to play, but nevertheless, it needed to be heard.
“The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” does an incredible job of making the singer into a complicated civil rights activist with drug abuse issues who loves her dogs and her fans. Even with all the bad that she does, the audience can never really be mad at her because of all the external forces that push her around—quite literally sometimes. The amount of physical violence in this film was fairly shocking, but it played a necessary role in defining Holiday’s character. While she was slapped around, pushed into walls, and harassed she always fought back. No matter the cost, Holiday proves to be a resilient woman who never lets others get in the way of her being her authentic self.
“The United States vs Billie Holiday” is an ode to a powerful figure in American culture, no doubt, but what is truly masterful is how the director, Lee Daniels, creates an intense, yet realistically sobering perspective on Holiday and her experiences. Daniels does not shy away from showing the lynching of a mother in front of her two children. The audience is able to react through Holiday who is just a bystander to this hate crime, which in a way, distances them from the reality of the situation. Nonetheless, watching this heavy scene takes an emotional toll on viewers as the children scream and cry for their father to take their mother down from a tree. It is painful to watch, but I believe that’s exactly what Daniels wants. He wants the audience to feel the same rage that empowered Holiday to sing “Strange Fruit” because things need to change. This is not a feel good movie; it is a film that deals with racial injustice and it attempts to incite the same feelings that Holiday does when she performs.
This movie constantly battles between richly red scenes with music and white, sterile scenes where Holiday is once again a victim to a system that hates her or to her many vices that shortened her life. Through the use of juxtaposition, Daniels effortlessly blends the many facets of Holiday’s life to really probe the question, who or what is responsible for her untimely death? Was it her addictions or was it the law men who saw her as a menace to society simply because she spoke (and sang) her truth? “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” is a persuasive film that succeeds in not only making an argument that the fight for racial justice and equality is not over, but it also provides a genuinely interesting look into the life of one of the most famous performers of the twentieth century.
“The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” is available on Hulu.
By Kyra Matus