Andra Day is spectacular in breakout role as late, great, tortured jazz singer
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Starring Andra Day
Directed by Lee Daniels
How to Watch: On Hulu Friday, Feb. 26, 2021
Since 1976, every state has observed February as Black History Month. And this month’s rich slate of history lessons draw to a close with a cinematic gut-punch of a biopic about the turbulent life of one of America’s musical treasures—and how her music made her a target of the FBI.
Holiday, the Philadelphia-born jazz/swing singer nicknamed “Lady Day,” became famous first in the nightclubs of Harlem during the late 1930s, later recording solo and with big bands of the era. Her incendiary 1939 song “Strange Fruit,” about the epidemic lynching of Black men and women in the South, became a hit, and also her lifelong musical signature.
It also put her in the crosshairs of the federal government, who saw Holiday and “Strange Fruit” as threats to the social order, a “musical starting gun for this so-called civil rights movement,” as one federal agent puts it in the movie. The government didn’t like celebrities—especially Black ones—rocking the boat, churning the water, stirring up trouble. “Don’t you want to set an example for your race?” a reporter asks her. “Like Ella Fitzgerald?”
The FBI knows they can’t easily shut Holiday up, or shut her down, for singing. But they also know she uses heroin, like some other jazz musicians. So they go after her for drugs. And the Feds play rough—and dirty.
You may not be familiar with Andra Day, the actress who portrays Holiday—at least not onscreen. But get ready for one heck of an introduction. Day, 36, is a Grammy-nominated singer who most recently performed her song “Rise Up” for the 2021 presidential inauguration ceremonies. Now making her starring-role film debut, she’s a fireball. Day’s transformation into Holiday involved a drastic diet—dropping nearly 30 pounds—and “learning” to smoke cigarettes, and she makes an indelible, phenomenal first impression (that’s already getting Oscar buzz), creating a gutsy, earthy and remarkably intense portrait of a divinely gifted performer and the demons that plagued her.
Day may have morphed her body for the part, but her voice was more than ready for the role. She’s sassy, sultry, sensual and sensational on several of Holiday’s musical touchstones, including “Lover Man,” Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “Them There Eyes,” “All of Me,” “God Bless the Child” and, of course, the haunting “Strange Fruit,” which contrasts the garish “burning flesh” of lynched Black bodies with the “sweet and fresh” fragrance of the magnolia trees in which they are hanging.
When she finally sings that song, to a hushed audience, stunned to silence by her every word in a darkened theater, watching her illuminated by a single spotlight, it’ll give you goosebumps.
Heroin was one of Holiday’s demons. Another was newly minted FBI commissioner Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), who becomes obsessed with muzzling her out of fear that “Strange Fruit” will agitate Black audiences—and perhaps even galvanize them into social action. “Drugs and n-ggers are a contamination to our great American civilization,” Anslinger tells his committee. “This jazz music is the devil’s work.”
Tyler James Williams (who at 14 played “Chris Rock” in the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris) is Holiday’s cool-cat saxophonist and musical partner, Lester Young. Trevante Rhodes plays Jimmy Fletcher, a Black FBI agent who has a “complictated” relationship with the singer he’s assigned to bust and bring in. Rob Morgan (Officer Powell from TV’s Stranger Things) is Louis McKay, Holiday’s abusive husband. Snowfall’s Melvin Gregg comes and goes as her lover and drug supplier, Joe Guy. Natasha Lyonne, who played junkie sexhound Nicky Nichols on Orange is the New Black, nails the fiery Southern sass of actress Tallulah Bankhead, with whom Holiday was also intimately—and romantically—involved. Emmy-winning character actor Leslie Jordan (who now plays Phil on the Fox sitcom Call Me Kat) cross-dresses to play a gossipy female radio host interviewing Holiday in her later days, reflecting on her controversial career.
And Evan Ross, who has a bit part as another young Black FBI agent, is the son of singer Diana Ross, who was Oscar-nominated for her starring role in the 1972 Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues.
In his first feature film since The Butler (2013), Lee Daniels turns his focus on this seminal figure in Black history and pop culture, who received four posthumous Grammys and is lauded for “telling it like it is” in a song that became a bona fide top-seller before the music business began officially charting successful radio singles. Basing his film in part on the 2015 book Chasing the Scream, about the (unsuccessful) war on drugs, Daniels uses flashbacks and different kinds of film textures and techniques—to mimic faux-documentary and newsreel footage—to show the dizzying swirl of Holiday’s life as it spins increaslingly out of control. It’s a period-piece biopic, a slice of history, a love story and a tragedy, all wrapped around a spectacular breakout performance by a singer who now makes her own explosive entrance as an actress.
Day captures the complexity of this musical icon, a woman who loved men, loved women and used booze and narcotics—in part—to escape the painful memories of an awful, abusive childhood. Holiday was certainly no choir girl, and the film doesn’t flinch from depicting drug use, crude language and some scenes of smoking hot sex.
In another recent movie about another real-life Black singer from decades ago, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Viola Davis—in another extraordinary performance—puffs herself out with expansive artificial padding and layers of makeup. But Day goes the opposite direction, taking it all off off—and I mean, she takes it all off. When FBI agents barge into her apartment, she indignantly strips naked in front of them, daring them to search her. This Billie is a boss—raw, righteous and fierce, but also frail, fragile and permanently scarred, in more ways than one. When she exhales puffs of cigarette smoke from her nose and her lips, it’s like watching the fumes of a battle-weary, fire-breathing dragon, pausing between bouts.
The movie spans the late 1930s to Holiday’s death, at age 44 in 1959. For a story that “ended” more than 60 years ago, its issues about Black lives, racism, civil rights and police brutality couldn’t be more timely, or more of a tinderbox, today.
Gorgeous, gritty and grandiose, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a tribute to a singer whose tortured life left a trail of heartache and heartbreak—and a scathing indictment in song about one of America’s darkest, most shameful chapters.
The FBI hauled Billie Holiday into court, put her in prison, and hounded her until the day she died. But she refused to be silenced. And her legacy, and her song, lives on in Andra Day’s triumphant performance and in this monumental musical history lesson.