How America Co-Wrote the Tragedy of Billie Holiday

The film ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ illuminates Lady Day as an activist the U.S. government was determined to silence

Many would find it difficult to believe that it was necessary for an Emmett Till anti-lynching bill to be presented to the U.S. Senate in 2020. The bill, which came 83 years after the introduction of the first bill intended to ban lynching, has yet to be passed. The first legislation proposed to outlaw lynching was written during the peak of the Jim Crow era — that post-slavery period when White people demeaned, oppressed, tortured, and killed Blacks whenever inclined. Their go-to method of murder was hanging by noose — at times, above of an audience of men, women, and children. This all too common atrocity inspired songwriter Abel Meeropol to pen the poem “Bitter Fruit” in 1937, the same year the anti-lynching bill was proposed. The piece used a poignant metaphor to paint visions of Black lynching victims dangling from trees.

Two years later, Billie Holiday recorded the lyrics, birthing the all-consuming “Strange Fruit.” Never before had a song thrown the country’s hate and bloodlust under such a grand spotlight—and its national success did not please the U.S. government. This history set the table for Lee Daniels’ latest film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, in which Andra Day gives a sterling performance as the tragic Lady Day. While Daniels spirals at times with creative liberties, the film is another strong addition to a wonderful crop of early 2021 (truthful) Black cinema.

The film — and Miss Holiday’s history with the U.S. government — reminds us how this country treats not only women and people of color, but anyone who dares lift truth’s skirt, exposing its grotesque legs. Though conventional slavery had been abolished for a half-century by the time “Strange Fruit” was released, White America still perceived Blacks as subservient. They were to live within the red, white, and blue lines drawn for them or endure being a public enemy, which was often a death sentence.

The film’s title accurately notes its premise. Holiday was a mesmerizing vocalist who would’ve gone ignored by federal authorities had she not awakened ears with “Strange Fruit.” In a time when the Black civil rights movement was embryonic, Holiday’s hit was uncut activism. The haunting tune climbed up the spines of listeners of all races and remained. In 1999, Time crowned “Strange Fruit” the song of the century.

In a time when the Black civil rights movement was embryonic, Holiday’s hit was uncut activism. The haunting tune climbed up the spines of listeners (of all races) and remained.

“Strange Fruit,” like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, activated the root of America’s racist aggression: fear. As with its vile history, the country is a prisoner of its own consciousness. While it loves to play dumb and exercise convenient amnesia, it will never be able to escape its litany of crimes against humanity. It’s not that America has any desire to stop shitting on non-Whites; it’s that it loathes having its nose rubbed in its own feces. The threat of karma only heightens its fear.

Nat Turner was karma. Angela Davis was karma. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were karma. An African American uprising against White oppressors is the American nightmare. In 1939, a New York Post writer reviewing “Strange Fruit” compared it to France’s national anthem, a call to arms directly connected to the French Revolution: “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its ‘Marseillaise.’”

These kinds of quotes fueled J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s and ’70s, also inciting Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger, Holiday’s antagonist in the film. Savage men like these feared the return of roosters more than most, and when scared — as do most animals — they attack mercilessly. Even more so, they attack devilishly.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday shines a light on how the feds used African Americans (often by coercion or ultimatum) to destroy their own heroes. This was before systemic racism wore a label; many Black folks weren’t sophisticated or educated enough to see that no matter the job title, vehicle, or attire they possessed, to White people they were only serviceable niggers. They hadn’t yet fully realized that the American promise of apple pie was not for those born with melanin. So the powers that be used Black ambition and ignorance to their advantage.

This is how America births Black Judases like William O’Neal, whose aid in the assassination of Fred Hampton was immortalized in Judas and the Black Messiah. Before the chairman’s death, the FBI convinced former undercover police officer Ray Woods that he was upholding his professional and civic duty by infiltrating civil rights organizations. By the time Woods awakened, his eyes opened to the corruption and trickery in his FBI-supported department, it was too late; he had already aided in the successful plot to assassinate Malcolm X. Woods went to his deathbed with that guilt.

Billie Holiday died handcuffed to a hospital bed. Not only was her nemesis relentless and callous, it was also predatory and cowardly. As with the crack era that would besiege the 1980s and early ’90s, the United States had no intention of halting its profits from the drugs coming into the country. Political leaders’ modus operandi was to simply use the plague to further publicly tar and feather those they feared: oppressed people speaking loudly about their oppression. No threat was off-limits; not the female, not the ill.

It’s widely known that Billie Holiday suffered from a heroin addiction. They couldn’t indict her on singing, so instead they used her weakness to muffle her voice and stifle its reach. They put a bull’s-eye on her weathered back with no consideration for her awful past or mental health. This was a woman who spent much of her childhood in a brothel. A woman who was encouraged by her own mother to begin selling herself at age 14. Being a woman is challenging; being a Black woman in Jim Crow’s America surely came with some PTSD. Holiday was self-medicating, yet her greatest addiction wasn’t to whiskey or heroin. Her lifeline was singing what was in her soul: pain. Pain that she and other members of her race suffered at the hands of the United States of America for centuries. For Holiday, her singing was sort of like self-administered chemotherapy — she was constantly trying to croon and belt the cancer up and out of her body. To stop singing the truth would’ve killed her faster than any narcotic.

Billie Holiday may have lost the physical battle, but her beautiful brass voice won the war.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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