Billie Holiday achieved international fame as one of the all-time greats of jazz singing.
Audiences loved her – but in the US the authorities tried to destroy her for her defiant stance on black rights.
Her heyday was in the 1940s and 50s, an era when injustice and discrimination against blacks was the order of the day.
In this rather uneven bio-pic, director Lee Daniels focuses on the obsessive campaign by Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger to stop Holiday singing the anti-lynching protest song Strange Fruit.
Anslinger hated blacks and hated jazz.
“That Jazz music is the devil’s work,” he said.
Most of all he hated Holiday – a popular black female jazz singer who had made Strange Fruit her anthem.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.
What makes the film stand out is Andra Day’s brilliant performance in the title role.
Day, 36, had already won acclaim as a singer and composer but had never regarded herself as an actress. Yet her portrayal of the iconic jazz singer is so true, so convincing, that she has already won a Golden Globe best actress gong for the role and has been nominated for an Academy Award.
She transformed herself into Holiday, listening to every recording of her singing she could find, starving herself to lose 17kg to reach 56kg, immersing herself in details of Holiday’s life, even taking up smoking to change her voice.
The film unfolds through the perspective of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the RBI agent who tailed her for many years.
Holiday’s life was a battle from the start. Her mother was a prostitute; she was raped at the age of 10 and became a sex worker at 13.
She had a succession of abusive relationships and escaped her traumas with drugs and alcohol.
Through it all she achieved extraordinary success – and she never lost her anger and her determination to stand up for black rights.
Anslinger seized on her drug abuse as a way to shut her down.
She was convicted, jailed for 12 months and forbidden from performing in licensed premises, which banned her from cabarets and clubs.
But she could still sing in concert halls and immediately after her release from jail she had a sold-out show in Carnegie Hall.
Holiday was only 44 when she died from alcohol- and drug-related complications. More than 3000 people turned out for her funeral.
This film is sometimes hard going but it is worth seeing for the insights it gives into Holiday’s life and for Day’s astonishing performance.
The United States vs Billie Holiday will open at Luna Leederville on April 22, with advance screenings from Friday to Sunday, April 16-18.
Watch the trailer…