The centerpiece of The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a fantasy-memory sequence envisioning the compulsions behind jazz singer Holiday’s legendary heroin addiction. Dusky figures spread across a fetid den lapse into extreme emotional states — from bewilderment to tumescence to horror and anxious, erotic oblivion. It is the most lavishly decadent depiction of Negro salaciousness ever put on screen. Director Lee Daniels conjures this outlandish diorama so that it crosses Jacob Lawrence with a Cardi B music video, but with a raucous Rudy Ray Moore, Redd Foxx vibe.
We see Holiday (played by Andra Day) seduce her FBI agent-stalker, James Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), into sharing the needle. He sinks into a narcotic reverie in which ten-year-old Billie appears, ushering his altered consciousness into the very busy brothel where her prostitute mother encourages Billie to earn to her keep. This sequence, scored to The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson singing “The Devil & I Got Up to Dance a Slow Dance,” expands into agent Fletcher joining Holiday’s touring band of foul-mouthed, bodacious renegades on Southern dates: Billie reemerges in the heroin haze wearing a yellow floral-print dress with fringe skirt and an open leg slit. Her glam image contrasts with her panic when witnessing a lynching aftermath amid the wails of grieving black children. It’s all a surreal, sensation-loaded lead-up to Holiday and Fletcher copulating. Then Holiday appears on stage defiantly performing the song “Strange Fruit.”
This wildly extended song intro goes to the film’s assertion that “Strange Fruit,” from 1937, was an objet d’art weapon that the FBI feared would incite unrest, and so the agency hounded and intimidated Holiday for her political expression. The stoned, nightmare sequence clearly comes from the imagination of someone safe, successful, and unafraid — but who follows today’s seditious fashion. Reverse the film’s title and grasp Daniels’s objective: He uses the effigy of Billie Holiday against the United States. Daniels waves a 1619 Project rainbow flag for blacks who, like Holiday, are always under siege.
It’s weird that Daniels doesn’t actually deal with Holiday’s addiction pathology; instead, as an Obama-era marketer, he competes with the social protest of “Strange Fruit,” featuring his own freaky-deaky details. Britain’s madcap Ken Russell couldn’t be sleazier, funnier, or more inappropriate, yet Daniels goes beyond the ingeniously gifted Russell into a pretense of political and historical seriousness. (“This war on drugs is all on us!” a character warns.)
Since Daniels’s gimmicks upset his former supporters on the left (those who praised Daniels’s Precious and TV series Empire), something about the craziness of The United States vs. Billie Holiday is worth examining. More than other recent guilt-inducing, angry-making Black Lives Matter films, this one reveals the messed-up state of our self-consciousness about race.
Every Lee Daniels movie should include his name in the title, as with Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), a history of White House servants. Through personal branding like Fellini’s, he aims to achieve status as the ultimate black entrepreneur-auteur. While taking black American social conditions as his subject, his movies are primarily about his out-of-the-closet exhibitionism. Race politics merely allow Daniels the license to be outrageous. In this film, politics are prelude to down-and-dirty sex and drugs — the latter are more fascinating than the moralizing social-justice rhetoric of politicians and PC media, yet a scam nonetheless.
Daniels’s opportunistic remake of the Billie Holiday legend revises the trite, romantic 1972 Diana Ross movie Lady Sings the Blues in Millennial terms — including a circus-sideshow entourage of a drag queen, an obese woman with an eye patch, and a junkie saxophonist Lester Young — then changing its affectionate Motown-style tribute into unbridled cynicism. Thin, light-skinned Andra Day, lacking Ross’s charismatic arsenal, strips down to Warholian depravity. She does Holiday’s Southern speaking voice uncannily well, but she can’t act the singing. Her vocal impersonation has no emotional drag like Holiday’s eccentric “I Loves You, Porgy” with the cracked notes, slurred energy, grammatically correct “love,” and damaged innocence — unparalleled beauty and defiance that have precious little to do with “social justice.”
Remember Annie Hall’s marijuana joke mentioning “the illusion that it will make a white woman more like Billie Holiday”? For Daniels, Holiday is little more than a foil — a race casualty, hunted by the U.S. government the same way other recent miscreants are. Everybody loses when George Floyd, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray are martyrized just like Billie Holiday, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X — but Daniels does that, too, disgracefully including Emmett Till by tagging on the lynching issue.
Holiday’s artistry runs second to Daniels’s nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for dirt). Daniels indulges black decadence as a form of liberation — self-destruction conveniently blamed on systemic racism. The same cultural stunt made his Precious (2009) a perfect match for white liberals’ unconsciously racist fantasies.
Critic John Demetry has noted that, in the concert scenes, it’s always white liberals who request “Strange Fruit.” That kinky appeal to social decadence is key to why Daniels’s agitprop surpasses Spike Lee’s. “Strange Fruit” is his career prop. “It reminds them that they’re killing us,” says the timely Holiday, yet her own composition “God Bless the Child” (co-written with Arthur Herzog) is a better song, telling all we need to know about Holiday’s anguish and intelligence. “Strange Fruit” is arty and politically driven. Written by a Communist sympathizer of the seditious Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, it represents the acme of anti-American self-righteousness.
“You ever seen a lynching?” Holiday asks. The song “is about human rights,” she explains. “The government forgets that sometimes.” Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks (the off-Broadway avant-gardist who wrote Spike Lee’s Girl 6) also pile the drug decriminalization issue atop Holiday’s biography — fetishizing a jazz legend’s pain and isolation to justify their own fashionable accusations of racism. But that process — and it’s become the guiding principle of contemporary Hollywood — actually diminishes Holiday. In The United States vs. Billie Holiday, ignorance about jazz combines with brazen masochism. Reducing Holiday to a victim denies her ultimate victory.