The United States vs Billie Holiday (MA 15+)
Great 20th century female jazz and blues singers often formed strong bonds with violent and controlling men. Billie Holiday, one of the greatest of them all, was no exception. She’s bullied, hurt and financially ripped off by a succession of husbands, managers and lovers. But Billie has a largely supportive male entourage who tour with her on the road from the small town, smoky bars to larger jazz clubs.
Andra Day was a brilliant choice to play Billie. She has the same smoky voice so Andra’s a perfect fit. From small-ish Harlem jazz clubs to the huge surrounds of New York’s Carnegie Hall Billie wowed her audiences. But the real-life role and importance played by undercover narc Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) was bolstered a bit by director Lee Daniels.
Yes, Billie had Bureau of Narcotics officers on her case right through the Forties and into the Fifties, but Jimmy wasn’t actually assigned to Billie early on. Certainly he’s ambitious and takes the role assigned to him by Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) who’s been appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. As time passes Jimmy graduates from friend to lover even though Billie is acutely aware of who he is.
Jimmy’s boss Anslinger apparently loathed jazz and at the centre of this was an uncompromising hatred of Billie’s 1939 incendiary protest song: Strange Fruit. This plaintive, slowly-sung ballad tells us about lynched black men whose bodies are hanging from trees like ‘strange fruit’. In our minds below them we can picture a burning wooden cross, the unmistakeable sign of the Ku Klux Klan. And we get to understand why Billie had a dependency on drugs.
Director Daniels takes us back to her childhood in the USA’s Deep South when she was a little girl in the 1920s. She’s living in a brothel with her hopeless and uncaring mother and was raped when a 10-year old. So as she got older, it’s suggested, Billie was able to better cope with these childhood traumas by injecting heroin.
Billie’s tough, though, and manages to survive the turbulent times with the affection and support of her small touring band. Saxophonist Lester Young (Tyler James Williams) is perhaps her best friend from the musicians’ world. She’d even coped with her one year-one day prison sentence served in 1947 for possession of narcotics.
But back to the jazz, and one of the greatest concert clips is Billie singing All Of Me in a packed 3,600-seat Carnegie Hall in New York. The audience, whites along with blacks, sway along with the jazz music and you can see dozens of them actually silently mouthing the lyrics.
On her hospital deathbed suffering from advanced liver cancer and aged just 44 Billie delivers one of the best lines in this lively movie. She tells Anslinger that his grandchildren – and hers – will be singing Strange Fruit and remembering the lyrics and what they mean long after they’re both gone.