Revisiting the case of ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’
Sophia Michetti | Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Hulu’s new movie, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” is a biography on one of the most famous singers of the mid-20th century — Billie Holiday — and her experience as a successful Black woman in the years leading up to the civil rights movement. The film follows Holiday (Andra Day) as she continues to entertain fans around the world while federal agents like Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) use her drug addiction to pull her down from her high place in society. Directed by Lee Daniels, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” revisits the past to tell the singer’s complicated history from her perspective.
The tone of the movie is as bluesy as the music. Looking at the color scheme, most of the movie takes place in the dark light of jazz clubs with pops of bright red and glittering gold. Billie Holiday is always in the spotlight, just like how she is always being watched by her fans, critics and government agents. In stark contrast, the courtroom scenes are bathed in white light as she’s put on trial with the odds of acquittal stacked against her. A Congressman said in the movie, “jazz music is the devil’s work,” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” certainly takes on a darker tone.
Daniels does an interesting job of juxtaposing glamorous scenes of Holiday’s celebrity lifestyle with the darker side of her life as an addict to the background of her hit songs. While singing “Solitude,” the screen continuously shifts between scenes of her singing in a crowded room and sitting alone in a cramped bathroom after shooting up heroin. Later on, footage of a Black federal agent being congratulated for making a drug bust against Holiday contrasts video of the singer as she enters the degrading conditions of the prison to which she was reprimanded. This type of editing is important to the film because it reminds audiences that there is always more to the story than meets the eye.
This film isn’t perfect, though. One major flaw with “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is the slow pacing. While the movie thoroughly tackles many of the major points of Holiday’s career to accurately portray her life, the audience won’t likely find themselves on the edge of their seats until over halfway through. Although, this slow start makes the turning points of Holiday’s career all the more chilling.
Billie Holiday’s strength is astounding to watch, and it is no wonder that Andra Day won the 2021 Golden Globe for Best Actress Drama. As a Black woman trying to overcome racism and misogyny, Holiday’s uphill battle becomes even more difficult as federal agents work against her to make her a symbol of their “war on drugs,” and silence her voice before she becomes a symbol of the civil rights movement. Still, she refuses to fight the “troublemaker” label society gives her until her death.
What’s unbelievable about this story is that Holiday’s quarrels with the government take root in one song, “Strange Fruit.” Released after a 1937 bill banning lynching was not passed, “Strange Fruit” was written to bring awareness to the horrors of lynching and inequality for African Americans in the South. Called a “musical starting gun” for the Civil Rights Movement by a Congressman in the movie, “Strange Fruit” was an important call for equal rights in the mid-20th century. In the realm of biographies of past music legends, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is much more than a story about one woman’s career, but it is a story about the beginnings of the civil rights movement.
Title: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund
Director: Lee Daniels
Genre: Biographical drama
If you like: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman”
Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article identified Holiday as a colored woman rather than a Black woman. The Observer regrets this error.