The United States vs. Billie Holiday is really U.S. vs POC

(Andra Day at the titular character)

The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which is currently streaming on Hulu, has already nabbed a Golden Globe Best for actress, singer Andra Day, who was also nominated for a 2021 Critics Choice and now has an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of torch singer Billie Holiday.

One viewing of the film and it’s easy to see why. The portrait often painted of the torched jazz singer, Billie Holiday is one in different shades of drugs, booze, men, self-destruction, and tragedy.

The story less often told is the one filmmaker Lee Daniels tells in the powerful and visually striking biopic.

This is the story of a woman who is a survivor and a fighter- not a victim; a gifted woman whose vulnerabilities she offered to the world through her art were used against her, by way of  the war on drugs, which in Holiday’s case was actually just a facade for the war on race.

In the 1940’s acclaimed jazz singer Billie Holiday refused to stop singing Strange Fruit, the chilling, poetic protest on the lynching of Black Americans even after the government targeted her and ceased to let her be until her last dying breath.

With a narrative perpetuated in the media throughout her lifetime— and to this day— of Holiday as a troubled, self destructive drug addict,  the real story of this woman was lost and is finally being told. Watch the trailer below:

Did Billie Holiday have a a drug addiction? Yes, a bad one. Did Billie Holiday have troubles? Too many to count. But, with all the headlines that supported the narrative of a self-destructive woman, the question can’t help but be raised of what drove her to this point?

This film illustrates a Black woman— in a time that wasn’t kind to either black Americans or women—fighting for her life, her art, and her people. When Billie sang Strange Fruit, she wasn’t a troubled singer but a martyred activist “ singing it for all of us.”  

The film challenges the twisted narrative of the “tragic, crazy, drug addict.”.Was this woman really crazy and recklessly defiant or just having a perfectly normal reaction to an insane, racist, sexist society?  Is she an aimless addict or a woman self medicating with little to no resources or support while being preyed upon by a system out to destroy her? Is the portrait painted of a tragic jazz singer and victim  accurate or is the stark reality a woman fighting for her life with every fiber of her being?

To every question: the latter. Billie’s tenacity for the truth was a threat to the United States; like the most beautiful line in the film says, “you hate her…because she’s strong, beautiful, and Black.” Bringing Billie Holiday’s truth to the screen and shedding light on the relentless, passionate fighter she truly was, is a story worth telling and watching.

Andra Day has said that for her debut performance she went method to prepare, taking up drinking, smoking, and starving herself to lose 40 pounds. Her extreme measures were well worth the deprivation and excess; the essence of Billie took over her in a tour de force performance that beautifully dances the teetering line of Billie Holiday’s fragility and ferociousness.

Day’s voice and work is stunning, particularly the scene in which  her tour bus over pulls over on the side of the road and she collides with the aftermath and distraught family of the disturbing lynching of a black woman which segues into Billie compelled singing Strange Fruit.

The issue of race is a the forefront of this film and this woman’s life; this story is heartbreakingly just as relevant now as it was in its time. A prime example of this is the way the film educates its audience in the opening and closing credits stating the fact that the anti lynching of African Americans bill that was proposed and denied in 1937 still has yet to pass in upon being proposed yet again in February of 2020.

There are no words to write towards the inhumanity of this. There is only the rebuttal that we all must learn from and take on the spirit of Billie Holiday, and like Lady Day fight for what’s right.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now streaming now on Hulu. The Academy Awards will air on ABC on April 25.

Contributor Megan Penn has a passion for stories in which women are in the drivers seat, along with a bad case of retrophilia.