As the telling of the story goes in the sometimes overwrought but searing and memorably impactful “The United States v. Billie Holiday,” the government didn’t really care about the troubled singer with the voice of an angel shooting heroin as she toured the country.
The drug abuse — that was simply the means of getting to Holiday. That was the rationale for devoting an inordinate amount of time and manpower to harassing her, infiltrating her inner circle, arresting her, sending her off to prison when a rehabilitation facility would have been more beneficial, attempting to plant evidence on her, hounding her every move literally to the day she died. What the feds really wanted to do was get her to stop singing that damn song: the haunting and scathing mood piece “Strange Fruit,” which told the story of the obscene epidemic of lynchings in the South and served as a wake-up call every time Holiday sang it, especially to the whites in the audience who came to see a beloved entertainer and didn’t expect to have their comfortable sensibilities challenged and shaken to the core.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees …
Long before the 1960s and protest rock anthems, the blues often served as traveling “newscasts” exposing the darkest nightmares co-existing with the great American Dream. Director Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Butler”) gives this relatively straightforward story the style and gravitas it deserves, but what elevates “The United States v. Billie Holiday” to something special at times is the breakout performance by Andra Day, a Grammy-nominated singer who had no previous feature film acting experience prior to this beautiful and heart-shattering tour de force that might well result in a best actress nomination. Day is a blazing talent who is up to the monumental challenge of not only delivering soaring performances of “All of Me,” “Solitude” and “God Bless the Child,” et al., but creating a character who is gifted, funny, fierce, difficult, passionate, sexy — and tragically self-destructive.
With Montreal standing in for the America of the 1940s and 1950s (the production design, costumes and makeup work are first-rate), and Daniels working from a dense and character-rich screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, “The United States v. Billie Holiday” delivers an early gut-punch in the form of photos of lynching victims in the South, with Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” every chance she gets, much to the alarm of the feds and the dismay of her own management team, who are more concerned with raking in the bucks than making waves. Even in mid-century America, you couldn’t arrest someone for performing an incendiary protest song, so Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the first commissioner of the Treasury Dept.’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, makes it his mission to silence Holiday by locking her up for her heroin abuse, which had become something of an open secret by the 1940s.
Director Daniels does a stellar job of re-creating Holiday at her show-stopping best onstage, and of establishing key supporting characters, from her abusive manager Monroe (Erik LaRay Harvey) to the duplicitous club owner John Levy (Tone Bell) to Billie’s only true friend and loyal confidante Roslyn (Da’Vine Joy Randolph in a scene-stealing performance) — and most notably, one Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), a Black federal agent who becomes romantically involved with Billie even as he openly acknowledges Anslinger has sent him on a mission to have her arrested for heroin possession.
Holiday doesn’t care about Jimmy’s not-so-undercover assignment; she’s an addict, and even a one-year prison sentence doesn’t deter her from returning to the needle, again and again, as those around her either ignore the problem or actively enable her. (To prove his loyalty to Billie, Fletcher even shoots up, further clouding his loyalties and further complicating their bizarre yet undeniably loving alliance. How can you be a crusading law enforcement agent when you’re committing crimes with and falling in love with your target?)
Andra Day looks and sounds like every inch the movie star in the performance numbers and when Billie enjoys rare moments of peace and happiness offstage — and she is equally, heartbreakingly believable as Billie’s appearance deteriorates and her soul is crushed by years of drug abuse, and a lifetime of being physically and emotionally battered by a series of men who looked at this amazing, glorious, singular star and saw little more than a cash register. Sadly, the self-righteous feds and their law-bending obsession with Billie Holiday weren’t the only villains who couldn’t care less if they destroyed her life, as long as they got what they wanted.