Fact vs. Fiction in Lee Daniels’ New Movie
Director Lee Daniels is back after a seven-year feature film hiatus with a new biopic, The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Drawing from author Johann Hari‘s 2015 book Chasing the Scream, which tells stories from the early days of the war on drugs and those caught up in the fight. The United States vs. Billie Holiday focuses on jazz singer Billie Holiday‘s (played by Grammy nominee Andra Day) battle with the United States government over her efforts to sing “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynchings in the South, and the attempts to suppress her by targeting her for her drug use.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is set primarily during the height of Holiday’s career, beginning with her performances at clubs around New York City as well as the renowned Café Society. As Holiday’s star grows, so does the attention paid to her by Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Throughout the movie, Holiday grapples with the weight of legal troubles, tries to survive the ghosts of her past which contribute to her drug use, engages in a budding romance with the FBI agent tracking her, Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes), and rises up to become a key figure in the early days of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Here, we’re going to touch on some of the most notable and central historical events in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. From the war on drugs to Holiday’s relationship with “Strange Fruit” to the continued fight to ensure lynching in America is made a criminal act through legislation, we’ll separate the fact from fiction to better understand the history at the heart of Daniels’ movie.
Harry Anslinger and the War on Drugs
In the movie: The United States’ war on drugs is at the heart of the conflict in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Anslinger is presented as a particularly nasty brand of General Racist Bureaucrat here, indulging in racism with his white co-workers, railing against the jazz music scene and what he believes to be its corrupting influence, and seeking out every opportunity to arrest Holiday and make an example out of her. Through an initiative led by Anslinger, Holiday’s career was frequently interrupted by encounters with the Feds, with attempts to plant drugs on her as a means to get her to stop singing and also put her behind bars for good. Anslinger is also a boogeyman through the movie, popping up as a spectral presence to remind Holiday, as well as viewers, that he is always watching, waiting to strike.
In reality: Anslinger was indeed the head of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the time period covered in this movie. Due to his role, Anslinger was a key figure in the war on drugs. The efforts to criminalize drugs after decades of widespread use both recreationally and medicinally are now recognized to have targeted Black communities. In what might be the most overt rewriting of history, Hedlund is a lot younger than the actual Anslinger at the time this movie takes place. Born in 1892, Anslinger was in his 50s and 60s during the period of time covered in the movie. As for Hedlund, who was born in 1984, he’s in his mid-30s in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday’s History With “Strange Fruit”
In the movie: The United States vs. Billie Holiday plunges us into Holiday’s career, skipping over the earliest days as she transitions from little Eleanora Fagan to the singer known as Billie Holiday. Because of this, the movie makes it clear that Holiday has been fighting for some time for the right to sing “Strange Fruit” and retain it as part of her setlist for performances. Holiday is shown singing “Strange Fruit” just a few times in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, too. The first is a thwarted attempt early on in the movie, which leads to her being dragged off the stage by authorities as the crowd protests. Later, Holiday sings the entire song, uninterrupted, as the camera holds on her face in a close-up after Holiday and Fletcher stumble across a scene of lynching while taking a break traveling across the country.
In reality: “Strange Fruit” was recorded by Holiday in 1939 and she first performed it at Café Society that same year. The lyrics of “Strange Fruit” were written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish educator and anti-racist activist, and adapted from a 1937 poem titled “Bitter Fruit.” The poem, also written by Meeropol, was published in a teachers union journal. Both the poem and the song are meant to draw attention to the horrors of lynching as it is used to target and kill Black Americans. The song became closely aligned with Holiday during her career as she sought to perform it. Notably, as Holiday continued to perform it, rules from Café Society founder Barney Josephson were apparently developed to ensure that the power of the song was fully transferred onto the audience. Those rules included Holiday performing “Strange Fruit” as the final song of her set and any waiter service stopping before the song began.
The Tumultuous Private Life of Billie Holiday
In the movie: The rollercoaster of Holiday’s love life figures prominently into the events of The United States vs. Billie Holiday. This is partially in an attempt to pathologize Holiday’s behavior as well as her drug use. The movie presents scenes of Holiday’s childhood where her mother, a sex worker, sends young Holiday to work in a neighboring brothel despite the fact that she was an adolescent. The implication here is that Holiday was, from a very young age, set up to fail when it came to finding love and, because of this, her choice in men could be explained as her seeking out what she knows. Over the movie’s two-hour runtime, we meet the men who would become Holiday’s husbands: first husband James Monroe (Erik LaRay Harvey), the second being Joe Guy (Melvin Gregg), and Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), the third husband. There is also a brief romance with Fletcher (Rhodes) while Holiday is on tour in the late 1940s, with the singer turned the once cold FBI agent into a sympathetic ear as she lets him into her world.
In reality: Holiday did indeed have three husbands: Monroe, Guy, and McKay. Each marriage only lasted a few years. She was still married to McKay at the time of her passing in July 1959 at age 44. Hari’s book notes that her marriage to McKay, in particular, was abusive (via Esquire) and that he was roped in by the Feds to arrest Holiday on drug charges. While the depiction of Holiday’s married life with each of her husbands is relatively accurate, there is some question of the accuracy of her relationship with Fletcher. In reality, Holiday and Fletcher were close and possibly romantically involved, but no record exists to confirm it. A Harper’s Bazaar breakdown of the history behind The United States vs. Billie Holiday reveals Holiday and Fletcher did spend time together and had long conversations. In a rare interview, also via Harper’s, Fletcher expresses regret for his role in Holiday’s repeated persecution, too.
Jail Time for Ms. Holiday
In the movie: Holiday is sent to jail for one year in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. It begins with an arrest made by Fletcher, who weaseled his way into Holiday’s dressing room while undercover in an attempt to get closer to her. Following their conversations together, Holiday is removed from the stage during a 1947 performance (something that did happen in reality at Philadelphia’s Earle Theater). Shortly thereafter, she is visited by Fletcher and his team to arrest her for possession of narcotics.
In reality: Holiday’s life was broken up by frequent run-ins with the law from an early age. During Holiday’s childhood, she spent a brief period of time in a workhouse after she and her mother were arrested in a raid on the brothel where Holiday was trafficked. As an adult, Holiday was incarcerated for one year in prison in 1947 after being arrested in her New York City apartment for possession of narcotics. Holiday’s stint in jail resulted in the loss of her New York City Cabaret Card, which would have allowed her to perform in venues that sold alcohol. In light of this, Holiday spent the rest of her career performing in concert halls and theaters.
Carnegie Hall Comeback
In the movie: Holiday’s Carnegie Hall comeback performance is a major event in the first half of The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Taking place in 1948, after Holiday is released from prison, the prestigious Carnegie Hall concert is meant to put Holiday back on the map. The movie shows some preparations for the performance as well as snippets of the recreated live event. One of the big conflicts during this sequence is Holiday’s relapse, which is revealed after the performance ends. After spending time in prison getting clean and trying to stay sober following her release, Holiday admits she was high during the Carnegie Hall show because of her nerves.
In reality: The March 1948 Carnegie Hall performance was a major highlight in Holiday’s career, as well as a turning point in it. The setlist from that night’s performance remains intact as available to check out thanks to Carnegie Hall, too. A look at the setlist confirms Holiday did indeed sing “Strange Fruit,” as well as hits “Body and Soul,” “All of Me,” and “God Bless the Child.” The March 27 concert included 16 songs total and featured an introduction radio personality Fred Robbins.
Lynching in America
In the movie: The United States vs. Billie Holiday makes an effort to show the rise of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the first half of the 20th century. The fight for equality under the law is most often addressed through conversations Holiday has with other characters in the movie. In one devastating moment, however, the movie includes a scene that shows the horrors of lynching. In this particular sequence, Holiday is shown getting off her tour bus during a cross-country tour. As she makes her way through a field, she is drawn to the sound of crying and, as she stumbles into a clearing, she sees two young girls and their father screaming as he tries to get the body of his dead wife down from a tree. It is a shock to the system for both Holiday and the viewers, but an effective reminder of the particularly traumatizing act of lynching.
In reality: The United States vs. Billie Holiday opens with a black-and-white photo of a group of white people surrounding the burned body of a Black person. The photo moves into a block of text which tells viewers that, in 1937, an anti-lynching bill was introduced into the Senate intended to criminalize the still-legal act. Although that version of the bill never made it through Senate, a different version of the bill did; however, lynching was still pervasive across the United States as a common act of violence against Black Americans. (As a reminder, Emmett Till died by lynching at age 14 at the hands of a white Mississippi community in 1955.) The movie closes with text telling viewers that, in 2019, the “Emmet Till Antilynching Act” was introduced into Senate to once again make lynching a federal crime. The bill was considered but failed to pass with a unanimous vote after Senator Rand Paul rejected the bill.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now available to stream on Hulu.
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