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Photo: ‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday’/Hulu
‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday’
HULU original film ‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday‘ directed by Lee Daniels’, follows the late and wondrous jazz singer, Billie Holiday, portrayed by Andra Day, during a point in her career when she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics against her activism in the context of her song ‘Strange Fruit’ and overall activism for Black Americans.
The undercover operation is led by Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, portrayed by Trevante Rhodes, who was having an affair with Holiday — inspired by the life story of one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, ‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday’ does not entirely meet the mark in entailing Holiday’s successful and incredibly impactful life story. Instead, the film focuses on a vindictive portrayal of Holiday’s moving career as a Black female jazz musician and godmother of civil rights throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s when being all of those things was indeed not easy nor approved of by the masses.
“The voice of our people.”
For twenty-six years, Eleanora Fagan, more commonly known for her performance name, Billie Holiday, was a profoundly excellent and bone-chilling American jazz and swing music singer. Holiday was a pioneer for the music industry with her remarkable vocal capabilities rich in emotion, truth, and pain. Holiday’s childhood is filled with an abundance of tragedies with Holiday’s absent mother, attempted rape, a school drop-out at the age of eleven, and a victim of sexual trafficking; Holiday was and is a survivor.
Holiday began her singing career as a young teenager performing in Harlem nightclubs. When her popularity increased, she would perform at more clubs, gaining even more attention from the public. In 1935, she would work alongside pianist Teddy Wilson with songs ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’ and ‘Miss Brown To You.’ From this point on, Holiday’s popularity would grow as the public fell in love with her the richness of her voice and emotion that is evoked in her vocals with songs such as ‘I’ll Be Seeing You,’ ‘Blue Moon,’ ‘All of Me,’ ‘April In Paris,’ and so many more moving classics; Holiday was a force to be reckoned with.
Recorded in 1939, Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit‘ is an outcry describing Black America and who lived in pure and utter terror of lynching. It directly strikes against and confronts white supremacy in America during the late ’30s, early ’40s. This song, or more so a courageous and brave confrontation against hate to the utmost amount, is withheld in most of ‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.’ Filmed less than a week into production, Andra Day is thrown into singing ‘Strange Fruit’ for a group of extras on set. In this specific scene, Holiday (Andra Day) is given a few beats of ‘Strange Fruit’ before being maliciously dragged off the stage by police who had banned the song prior due to its attack on white supremacy.
As said by Andra Day in an interview with Deadline, “I was like, ‘Oh my God, why would they set me up like this?’ — It’s like they don’t want me to be successful because this should be the last week. I think the nerves helped to affect me because I’m sure [Holiday] would have been nervous singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ knowing that all those police were back there. I just had a brand-new respect for actors, marinating in all that trauma and familial pain. Honestly, I was really transformed by it.”
With such a life of pain and beauty, Daniels’ film comes off as a less-than recreation focused on trauma and hate rather than who Holiday indeed was. Without a doubt, this film would not be worth it had it not been for Andra Day’s and the entire cast’s performances. From her bitter laugh when the FBI tries to frame her on her deathbed to responsibly connecting to the outcry for Black Americans with ‘Strange Fruit,’ or her work ethic towards perfecting Holiday’s voice, Day saves this film.
As said by Day about singing and portraying Holiday, “I did not want to do this movie without doing her voice, — because I look at her voice as a scroll and on it is written all of her experiences, every hit from a man, every time she slammed heroin, every time she stood up against the government when they came after her for singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ every drag from a cigarette. Her voice is just as much her personality and character as she is, and so singing the songs was not just about emulating her, it was interpreting her, to tune in on where her voice comes from.” While the film’s presence is not entirely there when representing Holiday’s life story of Civil Rights, upbringing, music, bisexuality, love, commitment, everything that the film missed, Day picked up and did with passion and integrity.
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Godmother of Civil Rights
When casting for ‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,’ Lee Daniels, and Andra Day both agreed that they did not believe that she would be fit to portray the legendary Billie Holiday. As said by Andra Day as she recalls the meeting with director Daniels, “He’s like, ‘I don’t want to work with her, she’s not an actress, — And I had a horrible idea that I would be a stain on her legacy. So, I was trying to convince him, like, ‘I’m so glad to meet you, but make sure you just get the right person and do what you need to do.'” When Day got a look into Daniel’s angle he was after for the film, she reconsidered, saying, “Once I realized that the film would be talking about the government going after her for singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ it was very incentivizing that we would have an opportunity to vindicate her legacy, and the world would have an opportunity get to know her as the godmother of civil rights. So, it was a powerful moment and revelation for me.”
For Day, her hesitation came from the worry of portraying Holiday with respect, but it feels that Daniels’ had that old Hollywood face that distracted him from seeing Day’s talent, making her doubt herself. Her performance name Andra Day comes from the influence of Billie Holiday’s nickname “Lady Day,” so how better of a fit for someone who respects and looks up to Holiday, whom herself has a stunning voice, not be chosen immediately for the role. As said by Day about her love for the late jazz singer, “All I knew was that whatever I was listening to was extremely powerful and I could hear the sacrifice. I was like, ‘Wow, she’s giving up something.’ It wasn’t until I was about 18 when I started to dive into who she is.”
The cast is astounding without hesitation, but the editing and storyline directed by Lee Daniels fall short in portraying the late jazz singer’s life story. Most commonly known for the Grammy-nominated song ‘Rise Up,’ Andra Day has no lack in vocal capabilities nor lack of admiration for Billie Holiday’s life story. Day portrays Holiday as a dedicated performance of honor that is not a replication of the jazz singer as most life story films go about when dedicated to legendary figures such as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’
Trevante Rhodes (‘Moonlight,’ ‘The Predator,’ ‘Bird Box‘), who portrays Jimmie Fletcher, an FBI agent who was having an affair with Holiday, was lacking the interrogation in the relationship that made him turn his back on her to the Federal Department of Narcotics. While Rhodes’ acting was brilliant, it was the screenplay done by Suzan-Lori Parks (‘Girl 6,’ ‘Native Son,’ ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘) that failed to grasp Jimmie Fletcher just as it had been unable to hold Billie Holiday. Holiday’s bisexuality is never presented as it was when the only thing she gets to do with Tallulah Bankhead portrayed by Natasha Lyonne (‘Orange Is the New Black,’ ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’) is go for a walk in the park.
As said by Day about Holiday’s love life, “I think Billie Holiday wanted to be loved, — I think she also wanted to be loved a certain way and it had a lot to do with familiarity. It was this idea of her getting beat up, or her husband punching her in the face or knocking her out cold as more familiar and more comfortable than her being vulnerable completely with a man. I feel like in her mind, she reasons, ‘Great, I’ll get hit in the eye, but that’ll heal in whatever time it’ll heal. Heartbreak, that could last what feels like forever.'” It seems that Day understands Holiday in such a profound way that is missing in Lee Daniels’ vindictive directing, Suzan-Lori Parks’s clumsy script, and Jay Rabinowitz’s jumbled editing.
Looking back on the experience, Day says, “There are things that I’m still trying to recover from, but I would never have done it any other way. I would do it exactly the same. It was three years of being in her headspace. It feels so fulfilling and gratifying to be a part of the conversation… especially for me to tell the story of a woman I love so deeply. People can finally say, ‘Oh, wow, she was actually the godmother of Civil Rights. She wasn’t just a tragic drug addict or a troubled singer; she was fighting for us.” It is predicted that Andra Day has a chance for the nomination of Best Actress for the 2021 Oscars, and it brings joy to my heart to see the effort put in by Day to bring honor to one of the most influential Black women of all time is receiving recognition. You’ve got my vote, Miss. Day.
Other cast members worthy of note for their supporting roles alongside Andra Day include but are not limited to Leslie Jordan (‘The Help,’ ‘Will & Grace,’ ‘American Horror Story’), who portrays journalist Reginald Lord Devine. Da’Vine Joy Randolph (‘Dolemite Is My Name,’ ‘People of Earth’) portrays Billie Holiday’s eccentric friend, Roslyn. Rob Morgan (‘Mudbound,’ ‘Stranger Things’) portrays Billie Holiday’s familiar figure, McKay. Miss Lawrence (Soundtrack/Actor ‘Star,’ ‘Empire’) portrays Billie Holiday’s stylist, Miss Freddy. And Garret Hedlund (‘TRON: Legacy,’ ‘Mudbound,’ ‘On The Road’) portrays the first chief of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Narcotics racist, Harry Anslinger.
Where To Watch ‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday’
‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday’ releases for streaming in Brazil, Canada, UK, and the US on February 26, 2021, available for watching through the streaming platform HULU.
Where To Find The Stars
Just recently announced, Lee Daniels will be directing and producing ‘Terms of Endearment,’ starring Oprah Winfrey. As said on IMDb about ‘Terms of Endearment,’ “A look at the complex relationship between a mother and her dying daughter. A remake of the 1983 film ‘Terms of Endearment’.” Daniels will also be producing ‘The Wonder Years,’ as said on IMDb about ‘The Wonder Years,’ “A man recalls his experiences growing up in Montgomery, Alabama during the late-1960s.”
While not currently in line to act in an upcoming film, Andra Day is in the works for an album. Day’s new single, ‘Tigress & Tweed’ from ‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday’ is available for streaming, as well as the entire soundtrack starring Day’s incredible voice. As said by Day for Deadline regarding ‘Tigress & Tweed,’ “I am so grateful for that song. It’s literally my favorite thing I’ve ever written in my life, — It feels very, very full circle because a huge part of what I am this season is Billie Holiday. I’m grateful to be able to sit here and say that.”
On March 21, 2021, Suzan-Lori Parks will appear as the creator/writer for the season 3 premiere of ‘Genius’ starring Samantha Colley, Seth Gabel, Antonio Banderas, and more. As said on IMDb about ‘Genius,’ “The life stories of history’s greatest minds. From their days as young adults to their final years we see their discoveries, loves, relationships, causes, flaws and genius.”
Currently, in the process of post-production, Garret Hedlund will next be seen in Marco Perego Saldana’s ‘Keyhole Garden,’ alongside Zoe Saldana, Tom Waits, and more. As said on IMDb about ‘Keyhole Garden,’ “The story of how some people’s lives are affected by immigration policies along America’s southern border.”
Currently, in the process of post-production, Natasha Lyonne will next be seen in Emily Tremain’s short film ‘Lip Service,’ alongside Mary Kay Place, David Sullivan, and more. As said on IMDb about ‘Lip Service,’ “A woman records erotica fantasy audiobooks from her bedroom closet while her own life is far from perfect.”
Currently, in the process of post-production, Rob Morgan will next be seen in Nora Fingscheidt’s untitled film alongside Sandra Bullock, Jon Bernthal, and more. As said on IMDB about the currently untitled Fingscheidt’s project, “Ruth Slater, a woman released from prison after serving a sentence for a violent crime and re-enters a society that refuses to forgive her past.” Currently filming, Rob Morgan will also be seen in Adam McKay’s ‘Don’t Look Up’ alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Timothée Chalamet, Jennifer Lawrence, and more. As said on IMDb about ‘Don’t Look Up,’ “The story of two low-level astronomers, who must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet earth.”
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