Trailer: ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ Recalls the Extraordinary Bravery of the Great Lady Day
Above: Andra Day stars in THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Takashi Seida
As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s imperative to consider that this year it happens to fall just on the other side of an attempted coup on the American Capitol, in which some of the participants were intently brandishing Confederate flags. The initially measured response of the Capitol Police to such a heinous act starkly reminded of how differently white and Black protestors are treated by the law.
It’s a thought-provoking context for the release of the upcoming film The United States Vs. Billie Holiday – directed by Lee Daniels (Monster’s Ball, Precious) – which will be streaming on Hulu as of February 26. It depicts the undercover sting operation targeting her by the Federal Department of Narcotics, which was actually led by a Black federal agent whom she was also romantically linked to.
In the trailer we see GRAMMY-nominated singer Andra Day giving a visceral performance as Lady Day, capturing all the fiery passion of perhaps the greatest jazz singer of all time: the smoky voice, the sultry vocals, the room-filling laugh, and the raw pain that made its way into every note. And also the seriousness and fearlessness which drove her on. Indeed, when Trevante Rhodes’ Jimmy Fletcher tells her that ‘Strange Fruit’ is his favorite song of hers, she replies, “It’s a song about important things, ya know. Things that are going on in the country.” To be sure, the lyrics were about Black lynchings in the South.
Tellingly, when it’s suggested she cut the song from her set for her own “safety,” she spits back, “I sing what the fuck I want.” And then later, “I’m not going to cow to no Feds.”
Fletcher was actually the agent who stalked Billie, whom the government saw as a genuine threat, and an agitator for Civil Rights. “This Holiday woman is causing a lot of people to think the wrong things. Those lyrics provoke people.” Of course, the exalted songstress was also an addict – and the film focuses on the Feds’ campaign to take her down, with her eventually being brought to trial on drug charges.
Billie Holiday’s life was tragic, painful, monumental and unforgettable. And with the far right on the rise again in America, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is certainly a timely reminder of the power of music to effect change…and also of the unceasing urgency of standing steadfastly against the insidiousness of unfounded hate.