"Making Excuses for Destroying Your Life with Heroin and Alcohol"
What You Need To Know:
Andra Day gives a searing performance as Billie Holiday in THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY. However, the rest of the movie is a lewd, plodding, unpleasant, hyperbolic political drama. It seems to make excuses for the way in which Holiday destroyed her life with alcohol, heroin and poor personal decisions. THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY also contains abundant foul language, strong lewd content, explicit nudity, and extreme drug abuse.
THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY looks at the latter part of the acclaimed jazz singer’s life, from the perspective of the constant harassment she experienced from the federal government because she refused to stop singing the song against lynching, titled “Strange Fruit.” Despite a searing performance by Andra Day as the heroin addicted singer, THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY is a lewd, plodding, unpleasant, hyperbolic political drama that seems to make excuses for the way in which Billie Holiday destroyed her life with alcohol, heroin and poor personal decisions. The movie undercuts the sympathy viewers may feel for the famous singer, who had a horrible childhood and suffered racial bigotry and spousal and boyfriend abuse, but keeps making the same mistakes over and over again.
The movie opens with a 1937 photo of some white men standing over the dead body of a black man who’s been lynched. That year is two years before Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” which is based on an evocative 1937 anti-lynching poem by a Jewish poet and songwriter, who soon set his poem to music and even performed it himself at Madison Square Garden with another black singer and his wife. The movie is told mostly in flashback, starting from a fictional radio interview Holiday has on May 3, 1957 in New York City.
The rest of the movie details how Harry J. Anslinger, a virulent racist who hated jazz music’s influence on society (especially Holiday’s popular recording of “Strange Fruit”) and headed the federal government’s Bureau of Narcotics, targets Holiday’s drug addiction. Anslinger hires a black agent named James Fletcher, who poses as an Army veteran and fan of Holiday. Eventually, Fletcher reveals his true identity and arrests Holiday for heroin possession in 1947.
After serving a year in a women’s reformatory and getting clean of her addiction, Holiday makes a triumphant return in a 1948 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. However, because of her felony conviction, Holiday is deprived of her cabaret card as a performer, which allowed her to perform in nightclubs selling liquor. To get around this, Holiday hooks up with a nightclub owner, who bribes police to let Holiday sing at his club.
Meanwhile, Fletcher starts to fall for Holiday and balks when Anslinger uses the nightclub owner to plant heroin on Holiday in 1949. The movie shows Fletcher fumbling his testimony against Holiday at her trial (in reality, Fletcher never testified), and Holiday goes free.
As punishment, Anslinger orders Fletcher to follow Holiday on a year-long bus tour. Recognizing what Fletcher did for her at the trial, Holiday welcomes Fletcher into her entourage, and they begin a torrid affair (a situation that’s not been corroborated one way or another). Eventually, though, Holiday returns to her abusive husband and her boyfriend, who supplies her with drugs.
The movie ends in 1959 with Fletcher visiting Billie Holiday in the hospital, where she’s dying from cirrhosis of the liver. As she lies dying, Anslinger arrests her for heroin possession one final time.
Andra Day, who sang her uplifting hit “Rise Up” at the 24th Annual MOVEGUIDE® Awards in 2016, gives a searing performance as Billie Holiday in THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY. She performs Holiday’s songs to perfection, with vigor. Regrettably, though, she also performs Holiday’s drug addiction and foul-mouthed behavior with vigor as well. Also, for example, in the scene where she’s first arrested for heroin possession in 1947, she defiantly, in protest, takes off all her clothes in front of Agent Fletcher and the other arresting officers, a reaction which apparently did indeed occur. In the movie, Holiday’s affair with Fletcher is depicted as a redeeming, loving relationship, even though she continues her heroin addiction. At one point, she goads Fletcher into shooting up with her, but at another point, Fletcher stops her from shooting up heroin. Eventually, though, when her drug supplier and sometime boyfriend reappears toward the end of the tour, she cuts off their relationship and returns to her self-destructive lifestyle. She also abandons the tour musicians performing with her. It’s hard, therefore, to feel great sympathy for Holiday as she finally lies dying in her hospital room from the effects of her heroin and alcohol addictions. The movie alludes to the fact that a man tried to rape Holiday as a young girl, that her mother turned to prostitution in 1929 and that Holiday herself briefly became a prostitute at age 13 in a brothel with her mother, before they were arrested shortly after Holiday turned 14 (Holiday started her singing career about six months later, using her father’s stage name).
THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY also contains abundant foul language, strong lewd content, explicit nudity, and extreme drug abuse. Other than the beauty of Billie Holiday’s singing, the movie has very little redemptive content. At one point, Agent Fletcher says he took the job working undercover exposing drug addiction because of the harm he saw it inflict on the black community. However, the movie never returns to that salient point. Sadly, though, it seems true that, throughout its history, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics led by Anslinger focused most of its attention against heroin and other opioids on black drug addicts like Billie Holiday and her personal dealer, and not on the big drug suppliers and criminals behind the illegal drug trade. Anslinger also focused too much of his attention on marijuana use. Finally, for another example, the federal government really didn’t start focusing on the Mafia’s involvement in the illegal drug trade and other crimes until 1957. It still took years for the feds to increase their cases against the Mafia.
Finally, this movie makes the uncorroborated claim that the FBI’s anti-communist director, J. Edgar Hoover, and anti-communist senator Joe McCarthy, as well as McCarthy’s anti-communist collaborator, attorney Roy Cohn, were in cahoots with Anslinger’s vicious, racist attacks on Billie Holiday and, allegedly, the black jazz community. There’s no evidence for this, however, that MOVIEGUIDE® could find. In fact, Senator McCarthy didn’t reach the United States Senate until 1947, well after Anslinger had begun his campaign against Billie Holiday and her song, “Strange Fruit.” McCarthy also didn’t begin his notoriety as a controversial anti-communist leader until 1950.