The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Premieres on Hulu This Friday
There are almost as many interpretations of the jazz singer’s short life
and enormous legacy as there are books and films
about her, including the new biopic starring Andra Day.
Above: Andra Day and Kevin Hanchard star in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
For the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the story of Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer, came to her in dribs and drabs. When Parks was growing up, she said, “our parents would tell us, ‘She had a tragic story.’ And then, as we got a little older, ‘She used drugs.’ And then as we got a little older, my mom would start saying things like, you know, they got to her. But she didn’t really get into it.”
In the forthcoming drama The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Parks, who wrote the screenplay, really gets into it, placing many of Holiday’s better-known battles — with heroin addiction, Jim Crow-era racism, and a seemingly endless string of swindlers and cads — in the context of her lesser-known struggles with Harry J. Anslinger, the unabashedly racist head of the now-defunct Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
“The story is about how this woman, this icon, was much too outspoken, and so the government came after her,” Parks said in a phone interview with The New York Times. “It’s about how we African-American folks love this country that doesn’t really love us back.”
Directed by Lee Daniels, the film reveals how Anslinger doggedly pursued Holiday (played by the Grammy-nominated vocalist Andra Day) ostensibly for her drug use, but really because she refused to stop singing “Strange Fruit,” the haunting and visceral anti-lynching anthem that has become one of the most famous protest songs of all time.
The role, Day admitted, was daunting. Holiday was one of the world’s most gifted and celebrated jazz singers, her songs later covered by artists like John Coltrane, Barbra Streisand and Nina Simone, her influence felt by singers from Frank Sinatra to Cassandra Wilson to Day herself. And then there were all the others who had tackled the role before her. “I just had this idea running in my head that people would be like: ‘Billie Holiday’s so amazing, Diana Ross was amazing, Audra McDonald was amazing,” Day said in a video call with The New York Times, “‘Oh, and then remember that girl, Andra Day, who tried to play Billie?’”
Premiering on Hulu this Friday, February 26, the biopic is the latest in a series of portrayals of Lady Day and her music that date back decades. Day’s Golden Globe-nominated performance follows Ross’s star turn in the 1972 feature Lady Sings the Blues and McDonald’s Tony-winning performances in the Broadway musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. In addition, there have been biographies (Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon), children’s books (Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her), and documentaries (The Long Night of Lady Day and Billie). Over the years, portrayals of Holiday have become more nuanced, shifting focus away from her problems with addiction to include insights into her history and legacy as a musician, a pioneering Black female entertainer and, with “Strange Fruit,” a champion of civil rights.
Looming over them all is Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday’s 1956 ghostwritten autobiography, which omitted many details of her life (the singer’s affairs with Orson Welles and Tallulah Bankhead) and fictionalized others (her place of birth; the marital status of her parents).
Above: Unfortunately Billie Holiday attracted endless string of swindlers and cads.
The book formed the basis for the 1972 biopic, a film that inspired Daniels to become a director, whose credits include The Butler and Precious. “Lady Sings the Blues changed my life,” he shared in a phone interview with The New York Times. “It was beautiful Black people. It was Diana Ross at the height of her everything. It was Black excellence mixed in with a little bit of pig’s feet and pineapple soda and cornbread. It was magic. I had never been so entranced by anything.”
The musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill imagines a single set during which the singer goes off the rails in a small nightspot in Philadelphia, the site of her previous arrest on drug charges. (“When I die,” she cracks, “I don’t care if I go to heaven or hell, as long as it ain’t in Philly.”) Holiday cusses against the bad men in her life, including her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, and the anonymous attacker who raped her when she was a child.
Since that musical’s premiere in 1986, a host of would-be Lady Days have tackled the demanding role in theaters across the country, including Lonette McKee and Ernestine Jackson. In 2014, McDonald’s rendition won the actress a record-breaking sixth Tony.
To bring the icon to life in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Parks read everything she could about the singer and immersed herself in her music. She reread Lady Sings the Blues but didn’t revisit the movie. (“Lee loves that film, so I was like, I’m going to let him have that.”) She also read several books by Anslinger, Holiday’s longtime nemesis (played by Garrett Hedlund in the film), who declared that jazz “sounded like the jungle in the dead of night” and declared that the lives of its players “reek of filth.”
Above: Billie Holiday’s addiction to narcotics lead to multiple arrests, a prison sentence, and her untimely death in 1959.
Parks also studied up on Jimmy Fletcher, the Black narcotics agent whom Anslinger enlisted to help bring Holiday down. “That’s the situation we’re in as Black America right now,” Parks said.
The singer who emerges in The United States vs. Billie Holiday is more fighter than victim, taking on Anslinger (near the end of the film, she tells him, “Your grandkids are going to be singing ‘Strange Fruit’ and holding her own against Fletcher.
“You get to see her as human,” Day said. “As Black women, we’re not supposed to show the ugly parts or the mistakes. Billie’s funny, she has this great magnetism, she can be crazy and self-destructive. But she can also stand up and be a pillar of strength when forces that are so much greater than her are trying to destroy her.”
For Daniels, Holiday’s story will always be relevant. “It’s America’s story,” he said. “And until we’re healing, until American has healed, it’s not going to not be relevant.” In Parks’s view, “She was a soldier. Just the fact that she kept singing ‘Strange Fruit’! She was a soldier of the first order. Those mink coats and diamonds that she wore were her armor, and her voice was her sword.”