For many years, Black celebrities have been criticized for not using their platforms to speak up and to speak out for black causes. Some were seen as selfish and inconsiderate but If you get to watch United States Vs. Billie Holiday you will understand why so many artists played it safe.
The tragedy of Billie Holiday being hounded by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for singing her signature song “Strange Fruit” was ironic because authorities thought she was inciting a riot by singing a song about lynchings. She had a lot of nerve using her platform to burn a needed awareness in the minds of her many fans. Harry J. Anslinger, who died in 1975, preferred the peaceful and celebratory barbecuing of black bodies, lynchings, and mob rule as a simple and justified way American pastimes. What was so wrong with that? The Black community was not to respond to the injustice.
They outrageously racist Harry Anslinger Jr. who Lee did incredible justice for in the movie by creating someone who looked much better than he did to play his part.
Harry J. Anslinger was the United States government official who served as the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the presidencies of Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy targeted Billie Holiday for her 1939 song Strange Fruit, threatening her and instructing her to stop performing the song. He had a habit of targeting minorities, especially black Americans, with drug charges and harassment was part of Anslinger’s strategy to justify the existence and budget of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was considered “so racist that he was regarded as a crazy racist in the 1920s.”In his 1964 book, The Protectors, Anslinger included a chapter called “Jazz and Junk Don’t Mix” about black jazz musicians Billie Holiday, (whom he had handcuffed on her death bed due to suspicion of drug use and possession) and Charlie Parker, who both died after years of illegal heroin and alcohol abuse: source
It does not go without saying that there were indeed celebrities who wanted to participate using their platforms to help the black community and some actually did such as Nina Simone, who was turned on by more black radio stations than white racists after they refused to play her records. It is a truly additional sad part of history when we learn about how deep racism runs and at the same time the many black people and organizations who acquiesced and played along with the racists. Our greatest enemy at times can be ourselves.
Billie Holiday grew up with circumstances that were unfortunately quite common for poor black girls in those days where black girls and women were the victims of rape at times repeated and there was little that could be done about it. Her mother was a prostitute who encouraged Billie to be one as well and it seems Billie had nothing but that and her dreams of listening to Jazz artists previous to her on the gramophone. She didn’t know her father and might have been a “trick baby” and was basically raised in a brothel. They didn’t touch much on this in the movie as much as they did a 1972 movie with Diana Ross. But this movie dug a lot deeper and told a lot more truth.
Trying to perform her craft on stage seemed to be the only thing that brought her joy. All the tragedy took place off the stage like her heroin use and sexcapades that included bisexuality with celebrities like Talula Bankhead, the famous white actress who had a thing for black women, and being treated like trash by the men in her life were daily events.
Having Anslinger and his narcotics agents at many of her events must have been painstaking when it was combined with an audience that wanted to hear, and would even yell it out, for her to sing “Strange Fruit.” Learning that she died with a handcuff on her foot and that allegedly her medicines were denied by orders of Anslinger in the midst of cirrhosis is quite tragic. While there’s no doubt she would’ve eventually died she may have lived longer has she been treated.
Every man she loved treated her like hot dog shyt on the bottom of his shoe except the detective who also turned on her and had her sent to prison for 6 years who ended up falling for her. She eventually turned on him for Lewis McKay another man working with Anslinger to destroy her.
Men meant everything to Billie even at the expense of people who actually cared about her like her band and there is a scene in the movie where she leaves them broke and on the road with no way to get back. It appears they never have anything to do with her after that.
She ran from anything that I could’ve brought her happiness but such is life with the black ex narcotics agent who admitted until the day of his death that he felt guilty for the part that he played in having her sent to prison. That was something that was also missing from the 1972 movie. One note is that Lee Daniels cast Diana Ross’s youngest son Evan as a detective in the movie it was very respectful to the legacy of the first movie made almost 50 years ago.
All the acting in the movie was exceptional especially Andra Day as Billie Holiday. She did an excellent job conveying the rough exterior and the gruffness in her voice and sounded identical to Billie holiday as a singer.
Again the question of why so many celebrities have shied away from addressing political issues concerning Blacks such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and others it does seem that every artist who did address political issues ended up having some sort of mental strain afterward including Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Sly Stone, and others. Mostly because the time has come and gone once the situation has calmed down or at least resolved temporarily. At that point, it appears their careers are pretty much over. It seemed to be impossible to mix intimate love and war in various music projects.
The scene where Billy takes the detective on a heroin trip after he up is awe-inspiring and by far the best scene in the movie. She walked him through her childhood in a matter of minutes and he comes out of it fully understanding who she is oh falls head over heels in love with her. His mother seems to understand Billie, having never met her, more than he does initially. Billie pushed him away because she feels he’s too good for her because he wants to treat her with respect. This is unfortunate. She is accustomed to men berating and beating her taking advantage of her and using her. To her, that is love.
I know someone who has a friend that moved into an apartment that Billie Holiday lived in Philadelphia and they found a box of letters in the attic that BILLY had written he has not released them but they’re detailed about how she had to do the unthinkable to make money back in the day. Lee Daniels did an excellent job of telling the story and separating the two movies but still having respect for the first movie this one bears the truth of what Billy endured during her short career that ended when she died at the age of 44. You can see the demise of her physical appearance which was awkwardly the best she ever looked at the same time in her images online but Andra shows the darker side with no makeup and poorly managed teeth. To have cirrhosis at the age of 44 would entail extremely heavy drinking for many years. If you get a chance make sure you check out United States versus Billie Holiday on Hulu