Vol. 43 No. 6 · 18 March 2021
At the Movies

‘The United States v. Billie Holiday’

Michael Wood

1408 words

Lee Daniels’sThe United States v. Billie Holiday (on Sky Cinema) hesitates a little about what kind of movie it is. Is it about the war on drugs, with Holiday’s career as an important instance in its history? Or is it about Holiday, with the war on drugs as part of the background? When we read a title card at the beginning of the film telling us that in 1937 the US Senate failed to pass an anti-lynching bill, and then another at the end stating that a similar bill considered in 2020 ‘has yet to pass’, Holiday’s repeated singing of ‘Strange Fruit’ feels like a political rather than a musical event, and we are clearly in the first movie. When we dive into Holiday’s dreams and memories, or listen to some of her other great songs, the politics seem some way off. In the end, this hesitation works well and is probably deliberate. Couldn’t the two movies just be one movie? Of course, and they sometimes are. But the energy comes from the differences, the tug of one against the other.

When the film opens, Holiday (Andra Day) is already a star. She’s being interviewed on the radio about the trouble her anti-lynching song has got her into – ‘They want me just to shut up and sing “All of Me”,’ she says – though the thing the interviewer keeps coming back to is her drug use. ‘They’ are the Feds and specifically the Bureau of Narcotics, headed by Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund). Later on, when we revisit this scene, the interviewer says, ‘but it’s a war on drugs, not on you, Lady,’ and Holiday replies: ‘Yes, that’s what they want you to think.’ In the meantime, she has been arrested while singing ‘Strange Fruit’ and been convicted for possessing and shooting up heroin. She serves eleven months in a prison in West Virginia. When she gets out, her initial return to singing is a triumph. She fills Carnegie Hall and one of the film’s best scenes shows her performance there. She’s a little nervous, not quite the laughing seductress we’ve seen before. She says to the audience: ‘I’m back.’ And after a pause: ‘Jail was fun.’ Then she sings ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’, a song composed by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, first performed by Anna Meyers and often associated with Bessie Smith. The song is all about independence, and Holiday seems to return to sassy life as she sings it. ‘If I go to church on Sunday,’ one verse runs, ‘Then cabaret all day Monday/Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.’ But then the song has two later verses, apparently introduced by Smith, that affirm the freedom to accept or even welcome abuse: ‘I’d rather my man would hit me/Than for him to jump up and quit me,’ and ‘I swear I won’t call no copper/If I’m beat up by my papa.’ In the context of the film, when we have already seen Holiday hit and kicked more than once by men she’s living with, the claim that this is nobody’s business but hers seems at once legitimate and deluded, as if she needs to insist on choices she didn’t really have.

In any case, she was somebody’s business and his name was Anslinger. When I was looking at books about Holiday in the Princeton library, I came across some documents from the file the FBI kept on her. Nothing very revealing, though an exchange of letters between Tallulah Bankhead and J. Edgar Hoover was rather interesting. But the excuse given in these documents for the persistent investigation into Holiday does take us a long way into the film’s territory: ‘Because of the importance of Holiday, it has been the policy of the Bureau to discredit individuals of this calibre using narcotics. Because of their notoriety they offered excuses to minor users.’ Ah yes, the war on drugs serves a noble cause, protecting the young. In the film, Anslinger says less obliquely that drugs and Black people are ‘a contamination to our civilisation’, and that ‘this jazz music is the devil’s work.’ He immediately gets more funding for the Bureau.

This thread in the film is based on Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015), which was published with blurbs from Elton John, Noam Chomsky, Piers Morgan and Stephen Fry, not exactly a ready-made support group. It has a chapter on Anslinger and Holiday. Hari suggests that the kind of argument I have quoted from the file was an aside – though it sounds to me rather more like an official line that no one bothered to believe. In any event it seems probable that the chauvinist fantasy behind the narcotics policy was, as Hari says, ‘that the Blacks, Mexicans and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place and menacing white people’. This is what a Black character in the movie means when he says: ‘The drug war is just a war on us.’ Hari notes that ‘the contrast between the racism directed at Billie and the compassion offered to addicted white stars like Judy Garland was not some weird misfiring of the drug war – it was part of the point.’

The movie’s astute screenplay is by Suzan-Lori Parks, and has all sorts of material that either doesn’t come from Hari’s book or that takes it in new directions. The most interesting sequence of the latter kind is the one that concerns Holiday’s relationship with Jimmy Fletcher, a Black FBI agent (Trevante Rhodes). His job is to infiltrate her group of colleagues and friends, in order to collect information that will convict her. He does this once, but the second time he shapes his testimony in court so as to expose the planting of evidence; afterwards he becomes part of Holiday’s group and finally her lover. From the start she has been curiously in sympathy with him, in spite of his working for the enemy; she understands that some Black people feel they have to act against their own race in order to get somewhere in the white world. ‘You have to be poor and Black,’ Holiday once said, ‘to know how many times you can get knocked in the head for trying to do something as simple as that.’ ‘That’ is saying what you want to say and not something else instead. After Fletcher has joined her and her friends in a drug session, and, strangely, we have seen her early life flash before his eyes, she breaks off her relationship with him, and with all her friends, in order to go back to a man who will beat her and betray her – because that feels normal to her, because that is where she thinks she belongs. When she dies in a New York hospital in 1959, Anslinger, devoted to carceral and racial symbolism, manages to have her dead feet placed in chains.

Andra Day is a singer who is appearing as an actress for the first time in this movie, and her performance as Holiday is amazing. Speaking to Oprah Winfrey she said, referring to many current responses to oppression and prejudice: ‘I think we just delete trauma.’ She has created a character who doesn’t do this but doesn’t succumb to trauma either. She also imitates Holiday as a singer brilliantly while retaining an elegant trace of her own personality and style. This is quite different from Diana Ross’s great work in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), based on Holiday’s autobiography, which is clearly a representation rather than an impersonation. Listening to some of Holiday’s records again, I heard something else: all the endurance Day gets across, but also a kind of fatalism that isn’t despair but knowledge. Farah Griffin, in her remarkable book on Holiday from 2001, writes of ‘longing, loss and desire’ as the topics of the songs and the singing, and this seems just right. I’m thinking especially of Holiday’s version of ‘I Loves You, Porgy’, where a kind of plea – ‘Don’t let him take me’ – frames a perfect awareness that it is going to go unheard. You can’t pity this person. She’s beyond that, and she’s been there before you.

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