POWERFUL! ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ film to be released Friday
The film is scheduled to be released on February 26 on Hulu. Watch the powerful trailer.
In 1972, Diana Ross received critical acclaim for her portrayal of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues,” also starring a young Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor.
But while the gripping tale mainly highlighted the singer’s rise to fame and fall from grace due to drug abuse, it left off the activism side of Holiday that many of us would know.
But “Precious” director Lee Daniels is bringing us “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” a biographical drama based on the book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” by Johann Hari. This time, R&B singer Andra Day stars as Holiday.
According to a press release, the film “unapologetically presents the icon’s complicated, irrepressible life.” The film features a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks and also stars Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Miss Lawrence, and more.
Daniels stated, “Whether you are new to the story and legacy of Billie Holiday or know every note she ever sang, I do hope our celebration of this complex woman does justice to a great musical legend and civil rights activist whose artistry resonates as well today, as it did 80 years ago. Hulu releasing this film and giving it a platform to be seen nationwide is a blessing, because as recent events reveal, our country has much work to do in fulfilling its promise of a more perfect union.”
Many may not realize, but Holiday was a big part of the Civil Rights Movement. Her 1939 song about lynching, “Strange Fruit,” made her a target of the FBI.
“When you think of Civil Rights leaders, you think of men,” Daniels says. “When you think of Billie Holiday, you think of this brilliant tortured jazz singer that happened to have been a drug addict. I didn’t know that she kicked off the Civil Rights Movement. That’s history and they keep it from us.”
The film has already been nominated for Best Original Song (“Tigress and Tweed”) at the 78th Golden Globe Awards, as well as Day being nominated for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama.
The film shows Holiday in the early days of her career, as she is “targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by Black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had a tumultuous affair,” the synopsis reads. Fletcher apparently switched allegiances after falling for Holiday.
Eleanora Fagan, known professionally as “Billie Holiday,” had a career which spanned 26 years. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia and Decca. By the late 1940s, however, she was beset with legal troubles and drug abuse. After a short prison sentence, she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, but her reputation deteriorated because of her drug and alcohol problems.
On May 16, 1947, Holiday was arrested for possession of narcotics in her New York apartment. On May 27 she was in court for the case, ‘The United States of America vs. Billie Holiday.”
During the trial, Holiday heard that her lawyer would not come to the trial to represent her. “In plain English that meant no one in the world was interested in looking out for me,” Holiday said in an interview.
Dehydrated and unable to hold down food, she pleaded guilty and asked to be sent to the hospital. She was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. The drug possession conviction caused her to lose her New York City Cabaret Card, preventing her working anywhere that sold alcohol; thereafter, she performed in concert venues and theaters.
Holiday was released early (on March 16, 1948) because of good behavior.
On March 27, 1948, she played Carnegie Hall to a sold-out crowd. 2,700 tickets were sold in advance, a record at the time for the venue. Her popularity was unusual because she didn’t have a current hit record. Her last record to reach the charts was “Lover Man” in 1945.
By the 1950s, Holiday’s drug use, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate. By early 1959, she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Although she had initially stopped drinking on her doctor’s orders, it was not long before she relapsed.
On July 15, she received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church, and died at 3:10 a.m. on July 17, of pulmonary edema and heart failure. She was 44.
In her final years, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and died with $0.70 in the bank. Her funeral Mass was held on July 21, 1959, at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan. She was buried at Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.
The film is scheduled to be released on February 26 on Hulu.