Lee Daniels’s stirring and timely biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday delves deep into the extraordinary life of the troubled, iconic jazz musician; a woman who was racially and physically abused her entire life, and then relentlessly hounded by government officials who were determined to silence her music.
In one of the film’s opening scenes, Holiday performs Abel Meeropol’s anguished ballad “Strange Fruit” inside a smoky New York bar. The track – which would later become an anthem for the civil rights movement – is a 91-word graphic depiction of a lynching, and it became the mission of the war on drugs zealot Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund in the film) to stop Holiday from singing it.
Golden Globe-winner and Oscar-nominated actress and musician Andra Day stars as the titular character, capturing Holiday’s breathy rasp to a tee. In the aforementioned scene, Day – who is actually singing throughout the entire movie – portrays Holiday’s pain as she delivers the lyrics to a silent audience. Her candy red lip and glittering silver dress is set off against two elegantly placed white gardenias. But the flowers, which became a signature part of Holiday’s look for the remainder of her career, were actually an accident.
According to reports, before one evening performance, Holiday was preparing to go on stage when a curling tong burnt off a section of her curls behind her left ear. A fellow performer rushed to coat check and they happened to be selling gardenias. Holiday used these to cover the small patch. These same reports cite Holiday as really loving her new look.
Still, she was a Black woman in 1940s New York and as one scene depicts, the famous and successful singer was not allowed to ride the white-only elevator.
“You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation,” Holiday famously said.
Charles Gregory Ross headed up the hair team on The United States vs. Billie Holiday (he very sadly passed away from COVID-19 in April 2020). But according to this account, he and Daniels were adamant the authenticity of Holiday’s hair was protected and the team “never strayed from the reference photos when re-creating her look.”
After a year-long stint in prison, prolonged heroin use – and the sustained efforts by the US government to stop her singing “Strange Fruit” – Holiday fell ill and died in a New York hospital in 1959. She was 44.
The movie is incredible. If you’re in the US, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is available to stream via Hulu. For Australians, the film will be released in cinemas, nationally, on April 22.