The United States vs Billie Holiday pinpoints a specific feeling that a few of us have experienced in our life. It’s a dilemma to speak or not to speak. To do or not to do. Everybody wants to focus on personal gains in this world. But sometimes one starts feeling this incessant urge to speak up against the wrong. The cause looks too big to be ignored. Some are fortunate enough to still ignore it and move ahead with their life. Some benefit from that wrong and some don’t even believe that it is “wrong” per se. It’s a matter of perspective.
Billie Holiday belonged to such a species that do get affected by the social and political environment. It’s an uncomfortable space to be in. Not many can afford the luxury of being apolitical in a time of distress.
The 1950s ushered an era where the United States found itself to be standing at the entrance of a completely new world. World war II had just ended and things were becoming stable economically. The golden age of the American Market was about to start. People envisioned an era of prosperity to follow, and they were right in their assumptions. The film industry saw the likes of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe and Mr. Presley was about to establish his monopoly in the music industry as the “king of rock-n-roll.” The country was booming with opportunities but a particular community’s aspirations were still being crushed i.e. the African American people.
The 1950s in the United States was a difficult time for men and women of color. Though stars like Billie Holiday did create their fandom but not without their share of struggle and strife that was far from being fair in a so-called democratic and law-abiding nation.
‘The United States vs Billie Holiday’ Summary
Billie Holiday sang about love and romance. But what made her a topic of discussion for the government agencies was a specific song named, Strange Fruit. It was a brute attack on the system, wrapped and decorated in a soothing tune. You might just groove to the music if you didn’t pay attention to the lyrics. But as soon you hear the lyrics who could never unhear it, no matter how much you try.
The song talked about the lynchings of African Americans and illustrated everything metaphorically. The government took it as harsh criticism. But the government cannot penalize for just getting criticized. So according to the film, which is based on the literary work of Johann Hari (Chasing the scream), the Federal Bureau of Narcotics wanted to pin down Billie Holiday some way or the other. They found a weak link when they came to know about Holiday’s addictions. Harry Anslinger, the chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, knew about Holiday’s heroin addiction. It is shown that he had a personal vendetta behind his noble crusade of fighting the battle of drugs in the United States. He wanted her to know her limits and surrender to the supremacy of the system, run by the Whites. He plants his covert agent Jimmy Fletcher, who pretends to be a big admirer of Billie’s songs and attends every time she performs at the club. He is persistent and is able to penetrate into the personal life of Billie Holiday, where a star is just a normal person with flaws and addictions, just like us.
When Anslinger raids her home and plants the drug to strengthen his case she feels betrayed. She trusted Fletcher and almost developed a connection with him. She serves her term but her tryst with doom doesn’t end there. Harry Anslinger wants her to stop singing Strange Fruit altogether. The authorities give the reason that it disrupts the peace and incites violence.
But Billie Holiday just refuses to stop singing it. She declares war on the dictatorship of the State, which discriminates on the basis of race and color.
The Dark and Lonely Path
The dilemma that I talked about in the starting, was what Billie Holiday experiences throughout her career. She chooses to be vocal about the atrocities and keep singing Strange Fruit. It is an abstract feeling without a start or an end. It just emerges suddenly getting nurtured by the past experiences and gets aided by our beliefs and values. It also depends on the compromising nature of these values. Are you willing to give them up on the sign of first danger or are you going to prioritize something else? It depends on where you are coming from.
Billie Holiday had a tough childhood. She knew what loss is. She understood what it feels like to be on the receiving end. She could have easily ignored it and moved towards a healthier and prosperous future. But she does not. Maybe she could not.
After a point of time, it becomes very difficult to differentiate between the ideologies and the man who carries them. We become what our ideologies are. You know that the path is going to be harsh. There is no incentive. But you keep walking because you enter a spiritual realm where you are no longer scared of this man-made system.
Andra Day is exceptional as Billie Holiday. You know that the actor has understood and taken hold of the character in its entirety when those little nuances when the camera is not focusing on you are also done with precision and technique.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is exceptionally written but there are parts where it is unable to completely captivate your attention. Maybe that is the reason that it felt a tad bit longer even when the duration was merely 2 hours. There are times when the emotions did not hit me with the intensity that I was hoping to. Apart from Billie Holiday, the other characters seemed a bit uncooked.
Apart from these minor glitches, The United States vs Billie Holiday is a nerve-wracking tale that keeps Andra Day as its centerpiece, who also does the bulk of heavy lifting with ease and panache. Even a piece of garbage breaks down and becomes a part of the earth in a few years but the corrosive mentality has no such self-treatment.
It was 1950s that we were talking about and the irony was that everything felt contemporary.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is streaming on Hulu.
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