Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” recreates what may be an untold, yet familiar story to so many of us. Newly deemed Golden Globe Best Actress in a Dramatic Performance, Andra Day keeps us on our toes, spewing with excitement as we watch the story of Billie Holiday unfold from his perspective. The timing could not be anymore apropos!
“You think Imma stop singin’ that song? Your grandkids will be singin’ ‘Strange Fruit’!” 44 year-old Billie Holiday expresses her final truth to Harry Anslinger even on her death bed. She continues, “You stupid bitches, ain’t got shit on me, ” as she smokes her cigarette in pure laughter, reminding the United States Narcotics Agency, and the world, that no matter how hard they tried to break her, she hailed victor in the end…or did she?
On July 17 1959, Billie Holiday may have transitioned from the physical world, but her charisma, resilience and art remain forever timeless. We cannot help to question, how and why, could a beautiful, petite woman cause so much ruckus in singing a ballad? Director Lee Daniels knew exactly how to shape this specific era of the 1940s world so that we, the audience, could witness Day’s reenactment of such a seemingly perpetual truth we continue to face in America: Black Women Are Targets.
Just a few short years later in 1962, Malcom X would remind us that “The most disrespected person in America is the Black Woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black Woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black Woman.” As long as she portrays herself as a docile, soft-spoken, muse, only to be seen and not heard, the Black Woman’s impact is not a threat to the “Great American Civilization” as Agent Anslinger mentioned.
Billie Holiday and several other jazz musicians during this era were depicted as evil, singing “The Devil’s Music,” and infesting The Black Community with drugs. Meanwhile, we witness a young, trauma-stricken woman striving to speak her truth through the use of her artistic and creative gifts as she attempts to protect herself from the closest ones in her circle, those she’s deemed family. “It’s about human rights. The government forgets that sometimes. They just want me to shut up and sing, ‘All of Me’,” recites Day in the interview that initiates the film itself.
This film gives all of society an opportunity to see the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual warfare WOC have experienced since the beginning of time, and how she has a uniquely innate ability to paint the most beautiful pictures with the ugliest of truths.
The truth lying present behind the inspiration of “Strange Fruit” is the reason Billie Holiday was a target. The use and infiltration of drugs in our communities was and is still one of many hoaxes the government uses against those with voices such as the magnificent Lady Day. Those who choose to speak the truth no matter how ugly or seemingly threatening to society it may be. Perhaps this is why it was deemed “Song of the Century” by Time Magazine?
We cannot help but correlate “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” to the indecencies we continue to see in the Black Community today. Even the beginning and ending of the film reminded us that lynching is something that is very prevalent to this day as we continue seeking and sacrificing a society of equality and “justice for all.”
We feel that this is an excellent artistic contribution to our own history as WOC. It is also a step in the right direction for the recognition WOC deserves, and the unity our communities should seek so that our voices continue to be heard in an effort to minimize and exterminate our plight in society. We would like to congratulate Andra Day with her newest accomplishment and cannot wait to see what her legacy yields in the future.
Contributing Journalist: Alis DeJohn