It’s Oscar season, and you know what that means: a lot of films based on true stories that tug on your emotions. One of those this year is The United States vs. Billie Holiday, starring Andra Day as the famous singer. Here’s a rundown of what inspired the film, which you can stream on Hulu.
Put simply, the film is about how the government targeted Billie Holiday in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s for her drug addiction because her song “Strange Fruit” was a call to action in the Civil Rights movement and they wanted to stop her at all costs. “Strange Fruit” is a graphic, provocative protest song about the history of lynching Black people in the South, and the film informs/reminds the audience at the very beginning that a 1937 bill to ban lynching did not pass. (One never has, BTW.)
So, if you weren’t familiar with the ways the feds oppressed Black Americans in the 20th century and tried to silence the civil rights movement, or how the war on drugs has always been more about racial discrimination than public health — this film might prove to be educational for you. However, The United States vs. Billie Holiday did take some liberties and artistic license with the history and telling of it all.
The movie was not based on a Holiday biography but rather a profile on her included in the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs written by Johann Hari. You can read the excerpt detailing “The Hunting of Billie Holiday” on Politico. It was adapted for the screen by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, so it should come to no surprise that the film has a lot of long, conversational, theatrical scenes.
Besides Day as Holiday, the characters in the film based on real people primarily include the antagonist — Henry Anslinger, played by Garrett Hedlund, the United States’ first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which later became the DEA. In Hari’s book, he talks about how Anslinger treated Judy Garland’s heroin addiction with compassion, calling her “a beautiful, gracious lady,” rather than having her arrested and hounded by cops and federal agents. Holiday was obviously treated much differently.
Jimmy Fletcher, Holiday’s traitorous love interest played by Trevante Rhodes, was also a real person. “The man Anslinger sent to track and bust Billie Holiday had, it seems, fallen in love with her,” writes Hari. Most of the politicians you see in scenes with Anslinger are based on real people, like a young Senator Joe McCarthy. You also see a young Roy Cohn, one of history’s slimiest lawyers and Donald Trump’s mentor, played by Damian Joseph Quinn. Other real people portrayed in the film include actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), talent manager Joe Glaser (Dusan Dukic), as well as jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong (Kevin Hanchard).
On the other hand, the casually racist yet enthusiastic journalist Reginald Lord Devine, played by everyone’s favorite quarantine comedian Leslie Jordan, does not appear to be based on any one real person. He’s just a framing device, basically.
Finally, the film does accurately depict some key facts from the last days of Billie Holiday’s life. She was arrested in her hospital bed, where she was being treated for liver failure and going through heroin withdrawal, and died in police custody. She was questioned by police without a lawyer. The film leaves out how adamant and rightfully paranoid she was, warning her friends and family and anyone who would listen that she was not going to make it out of the hospital alive. It’s unclear whether Anslinger and Louis Armstrong were present, but the basic facts of the situation are true. One way or another “Strange Fruit” put a target on Billie Holiday’s back, and she suffered greatly for it.
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