I feel like this will be an introduction for many to the powerhouse that was Billie Holiday. Watch and we’ll discuss.
My introduction to Billie Holiday came from Lady Sings the Blues. I can remember my grandma having the VHS (yes, a VHS and I miss them, honestly) in her catalog of movies near Waiting to Exhale and The Color Purple. Billie Holiday blossomed among an age of women who were feisty, bold and stood on their own two feet. What I mean by that last characteristic is that most women of that era didn’t have a man behind them orchestrating their career moves, per say. Women like Lorraine Hansberry, Dorothy Dandridge and Nina Simone were all women who were making a name for themselves by themselves, but where there is a powerful voice, there is always someone waiting in the shadows to take them down, or at least find a way to do just that.
Billie Holiday was a national treasure to not only the Black community but to the world. She was the quintessential jazz singer known for her improvisational skills and vocal delivery, but like some of the people of her generation, she had her demons which was just how those men in the shadows attempted to take her down.
Andra Day, fittingly, plays Billie Holiday in this Hulu original movie directed by Lee Daniels and I could not be happier as a viewer. Day has that raw and classic feel to her music and artistry. What I was missing in Lady Sings the Blues, I think I will get in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Diana Ross’ version in the above mentioned film was uncertain, a bit shy and soft spoken. She seemed more like Ross versus Holiday, so it brought me great joy when I saw the raw emotion from Day in this trailer. The anger of trying to be silenced, the fire of a woman trying to protect her livelihood and artistry and the sheer “They-had-the-audacity” type of attitude is all present in just this almost three minute trailer.
Everyone’s favorite man to look at, Trevante Rhodes, who you should remember from the Academy Award winning film Moonlight, is in this film as Jimmy Fletcher. Fletcher is what we would call in modern times a snitch or a mole. The FBI was concerned and threatened by her chart-topping song “Strange Fruit” (yes, boys and girls, Nina Simone’s version is a remake and not the original. I, to, learned this at a young age…or maybe you aren’t young but you learn something new everyday), so they sent Jimmy Fletcher in as a spy for them. They needed enough on her to be able to threaten her so she wouldn’t perform that song because it was causing the Black to have thoughts about their place in the world and they just couldn’t have that. Another instance of this very situation happened in in later years to the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton. Go back and take a look at my review for Judas and the Black Messiah for that story. I digress.
Spoiler, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was able to arrest Holiday on narcotics charges and was also able, for a time, to make a significant impression on her income after being released from prison. You see, when Billie was released, she could no longer perform in club that served alcohol. Good for her because she was also drinking while she was doing drugs but many of the clubs where she performed before her incarceration served alcohol.
Now, if you’re like me, you want to know what was so wrong and threatening about the song “Strange Fruit?” “Strange Fruit” was originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol as a protest against the lynching happening in the South. The poem, by then turned into a song performed by Meeropol’s wife and Laura Duncan, a Black vocalist, made its way to Billie. She was moved by the poem because it reminded her of her father, who had been lynched. She wanted to make a statement and perform this song and so she did.
I am beyond excited to see this part of Billie’s story come to life in movie form and how many people will know who Billie Holiday is based on what they see in this film. I think a lot of times we know someone because we’re supposed to know the name and one thing they did, but with film, TV and books, we get to know someone and that excites me.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday debuts on Hulu February 26th!