It’s Billiemania! You wait 50 years for another decent Billie Holiday movie and two come along in a few months. Clearly, there is something in the air. The recently released documentary Billie was completed in 2019, the same year that work began on this new biopic from director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy). But while neither film is a reaction to last summer’s worldwide Black Lives Matter marches, both are imbued with the simmering tension that sent the movement crashing back into the mainstream.
Where 1972’s career-spanning Lady Sings The Blues, with Diana Ross as Lady Day (Holiday’s affectionate nickname), offered a birds-eye view based on the jazz singer’s autobiography, The United States vs. Billie Holiday homes in on her turbulent 1940s and ‘50s. Holiday, here played by the American musician Andra Day, is being monitored by an FBI cell led by dangerous knucklehead Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), who considers her song ‘Strange Fruit’ “un-American”. This was a civil rights anthem recorded 25 years before the Civil Rights Act was finally passed in 1964, an anti-lynching protest song you don’t so much listen to as become engulfed by; no wonder it brought nightclubs to a standstill.
Anslinger finds the song so threatening to the racially segregated status quo that he resolves to punish heroin-addicted Holiday under the guise of a drugs bust. When he sends undercover cop Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) into her inner circle, he gets what he wanted: Holiday receives a heavy handed 12-month jail sentence. What the FBI don’t expect is that she’ll continue to sing the song upon release, nor that she and Fletcher will fall into a doomed affair (the latter based on iffy speculation from journalist Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, a chapter of which inspired the film).
Andra Day is extraordinary in her first real acting role. It’s a pitch-perfect performance; she embodies, rather than impersonates, this great figure of the 20th century. She is, naturally, no Holiday soundalike – her singing voice is lighter, reedier – but channels the musician’s defiant spirit in a way that somehow brings new life to these remarkable songs. Unusually for a biopic, the musical numbers soar. And Daniels’ dreamlike style is well-suited to a film about an unparalleled talent who retreats into heroin to cope with the repercussions of an abusive childhood: one nightmare sequence is followed by a chilling performance of ‘Strange Fruit’, underlining the pain that flows through it.
Despite the stunning central performance, the song and Billie Holiday’s genius for singing it are the stars of this story. From the recent Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to poet Jackie Kay’s republished biography Bessie Smith, pop culture is putting the spotlight back on brilliant Black women who dared to defy history. In one scene from this fantastic new film, Holiday hits back at an abusive lover even though the odds are against her. And that was Lady Day.
- Director: Lee Daniels
- Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund
- Release date: February 26 (Sky Cinema)