On Tuesday February 23, 2021, we hosted our latest HBCU Movie Night, and it was a moving way to honor Black History Month. It’s very rare that we are able to experience the mannerisms of a late legendary singer in the way that starring actress Andra Day is able to portray in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Day, who is a Grammy-nominated singer and honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, incorporated, brings every emotion out of you, yet leaves you wanting more. Her portrayal of Billie Holiday brought a legend to life, and highlighted Holiday’s sacrifices to bring haunting racial injustices to light.
Also known as Lady Day, Billie Holiday had a charismatic voice that brought black and white audiences together during heightened racial tensions. It’s difficult to imagine how black Americans fought to thrive and break barriers during the Jim Crow era when they were still being lynched from trees. Yet “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” chronicles the bold way that Holiday used music to peacefully protest the violent killings of her people. Ironically, the film displays how her ominous record “Strange Fruit” confronted the bloody side of racism, and yet empowered the police force at the time to punish the words of the song more than the violence itself.
In an unfortunate way, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” was a fitting film for the current political climate in the U.S. While some white Americans are privileged not to know the underhanded side of the police and the justice system, people of color in this country know it all too well. As a result, many won’t be surprised watching the depictions of the police’s relentless efforts to take down Billie Holiday by stalking her, harassing her, and censoring her. The idea of the police framing her isn’t surprising. The ascension of lead harasser commissioner Harry Anslinger’s career through the Bureau of Narcotics, to the point that he worked with U.S. presidents, isn’t surprising either. Holiday was cornered for her drug addiction in many scenes by the bureau, yet even that was politicized as the “war on drugs” harshly targeted and penalized users of color.
Ultimately, although Billie Holiday struggled with racism and drug use in her lifetime, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” will show how much she laughed and loved as well. She left a catalogue of music that warmed hearts and opened eyes, and she is respected for it. In fact, in the film Day was correct, Anslingers’ grandchildren and those in their generation still analyze and appreciate “Strange Fruit” to this day.Be sure to watch Andra Day play the lovely Lady Day starting this Friday when “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” premieres on Hulu.