The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a must-watch for anyone who believes music can provoke social change, and Andra Day’s searing lead performance is its beating heart. Until now, 36-year-old Day has been best known as the singer-songwriter behind Black Lives Matter anthem ‘Rise Up’, but her transformative performance as Holiday establishes her as a seriously skilled actress. With a Golden Globe win (Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama) under her belt already, an Oscar nod is surely within her grasp.
- Read more: The United States vs. Billie Holiday review: Andra Day does full justice to a musical genius
Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), the film focuses on a turbulent period in the 1940s when Holiday was targeted by the US government because she refused to stop singing ‘Strange Fruit’. This revolutionary protest song, still incredibly powerful today, uses stark imagery to convey the barbaric realities of racist lynchings in the American South. “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,” Holiday sings hauntingly. “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Day says ‘Strange Fruit’ was the “most difficult” Billie Holiday song she recorded for the film. “Technically-speaking, it’s a challenge, because there’s no click, no grid, no time,” she explains. “And then you have to nail this incredibly interesting and complex phrasing that Billie Holiday just did instinctively.”
Day first recorded ‘Strange Fruit’ for the film’s soundtrack, then delivered a stunning live rendition for a concert scene. “I didn’t want people to enjoy the song when I was singing it on set,” she recalls today. “Even though they were casted people [watching me], I didn’t see them as that – I saw them as people who needed to hear this message.” Day was so driven by the “sheer urgency” of the song that she became “pissed off” when crew members congratulated her on “a beautiful performance”. “It’s not a fucking beautiful song – it’s ugly, it’s terrible,” she says. Channelling how Holiday would have felt in that moment, Days says she felt like saying: “You know, I could die tonight when I leave this club for singing this song. So stop smiling at me and stop clapping and go do something about it.”
Day isn’t exaggerating the danger that Holiday faced during this period. The US government was so terrified that ‘Strange Fruit’ might galvanise the burgeoning civil rights movement that they made her, in Day’s words, “public enemy number one”. On stage, Holiday was an untouchable queen who captivated Black and white Americans alike, so the establishment went after her Achilles heel: her drug addiction. Adapted from a section of Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, the film follows Holiday as she’s harassed, stalked and set up by Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. After spending nine and a half months in prison for possession, Holiday is even stripped of her New York City Cabaret Identification Card, preventing her from singing in the nightclubs where she made her name.
Still, Day says it’s “absolutely too modern” to suggest that Holiday might have considered herself an activist. “I think she just did what was right,” she says. “One thing I’ve been thinking about is this: I don’t think white people back then even knew that she was singing ‘Strange Fruit’ for them as well. I don’t think people realise that now. They go: ‘That’s a song for Black people about lynching.'” Day believes that Holiday wanted her message to reach everyone regardless of colour, and she says that message was clear: “Stop fucking killing us.”
Day also points out that integrating audiences was a massive priority for Holiday. In the film, we see her insisting that Black and white fans sit together during her sold-out 1948 comeback concert at Carnegie Hall, which took place just 11 days after she was released from prison. “She believed in healing, togetherness and unity,” Day says. “She saw the shit that was wrong and she wanted to work it out. And she was willing to give up her life for it.”
San Diego-raised Day was introduced to Holiday’s music by a musical theatre teacher when she was 12, and says she was instantly “transfixed”. “Her voice reminds me of a rollercoaster: it feels like it’s gonna fall off the tracks any minute, but it never does,” she says. “So in that moment, it transformed my idea of what a great singer is, and helped me to really own my voice as a singer.” Still, Day admits she initially balked at the idea of playing Holiday, partly because she was “scared of being bad”. Clearly, her fears were unfounded, but portraying an icon in her first major film role was certainly a risk. Day’s only previous acting credits are a brief appearance as a nightclub singer in the 2017 movie Marshall and a voice role in Cars 3.
But after speaking to Daniels and reading the screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, Day changed her mind. She liked the fact it didn’t feel like “a remake of Lady Sings the Blues“, the 1973 film in which Diana Ross portrayed Holiday, or “a straight-ahead biopic either”. Day says with palpable passion that “vindicating [Holiday’s] legacy was hugely incentivising for me”, and there’s no doubt she’s done this. Day underwent “drastic weight loss” for the role, took up smoking to look and feel more like her, and fully captures the singer’s dignity, resilience and charisma.
The film doesn’t shy away from showing Holiday’s heroin dependency, and Day spent time with recovering addicts to gain a better understanding of drug abuse. It also acknowledges her sexual relationship with actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), albeit briefly, and explores more fully her predilection for violent male partners. Though Holiday falls hard for Jimmy Fletcher (Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes), a Black FBI agent assigned by Anslinger to surveill her, the film suggests that their relationship ended because he was too gentle for her. When Day sings the Holiday song ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’, which features the couplet “Well I’d rather my man would hit me, than for him to jump up and quit me,” it’s pretty shocking to the modern ear. For Day, this song has a “dichotomy” which Holiday herself shared.
“The song is still empowering, because she’s singing about doing things her own way,” Day says. “But it’s also a siren: an alarm being set off. Like, ‘Wait, why is this such a normal experience for a woman to get physically abused by a man?'” Day also points out that in the 1940s, and for Holiday especially, the lyrics wouldn’t have been shocking at all. “We have to remember this woman had to normalise [that behaviour] because she was raped at the age of 10,” she says. “She was sent to a reform school – society punished this young Black girl for being raped by a 40-year-old man. And then she was sent into a brothel by her mother where men would rape her again. So it was normal for her, and I had to normalise that within myself.”
If you come away thinking it’s incredible that Holiday achieved everything she did while harbouring a heroin addiction, Day challenges you to “go further”. “Given everything she went through in her life, even before the entire American government came down on her for singing ‘Strange Fruit’, she probably wouldn’t have been able to do those performances without it,” Day says. And when she did try to get clean, FBI agents would callously plant gear at her gig venues and rehab centres.
“This isn’t advocating for it, clearly,” Day adds, “but I’m trying to get people to really understand what it was like back then for this Black queer woman who held a mirror up to the nation by singing ‘Strange Fruit’, then had the entire American government treat her as public enemy number one. Given the pressure she was under, it was unbelievable that she became the hero she was. It was miraculous.”