Lady Day and the Feds

The United States Vs. Billie Holiday is a powerful biopic streaming on Hulu now. Academy Award nominee Andra Day nails the times and troubles of the famous blues singer known as Lady Day, as she battles racial capitalism during the Jim Crow era.

Lee Daniels, whose body of work includes Precious (2009), directs The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.  If you watched the former film, you know that he pulls no punches. In the current film under review, Daniels grabs viewers with his unflinching depictions of the anti-blackness that Holiday experienced, and in part, facilitated her drug addiction. Some scribes have criticized Daniels on the latter score. I do not, and this is why.

Daniels socially contextualizes Holiday’s addiction to heroin. He does this via flashbacks and characters’ dialogue. I think that approach works. Some critics disagree.

To say that Holiday’s life of 44 years was no crystal staircase is the year’s understatement. The harm she experienced in childhood and later left her traumatized and susceptible to illegal drug use.  Uncle Sam’s response is repression, attacking Holiday through her heroin addiction.

Andra Day’s portrayal of Holiday conveys her pain and suffering, but also the wit and wisdom of the singer, well. Like the black singer Ma Rainey, Lady Day struggled to receive just compensation for her artistry, which legions of fans loved. The scenes of Holiday singing such songs as All of Me are memorable for that reason. Andra Day’s terrific voice soars.

Trevante Rhodes, who I first saw play the main character Chiron as an adult in Moonlight (2016),is one of the characters in Daniels’ film who complements Holiday. Rhodes plays Jimmy Fletcher, an African American government agent who entraps Lady Day and comes full circle to adore her. Fletcher works in a racially segregated office within the Federal Department of Narcotics, a testament to the color line of that time.

COINTELPRO, the federal government program to disrupt and destroy radical political groups such as The American Indian Movement and The Black Panther Party in the 1960s, has a history. We get a slice of that in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, a testament to Daniels’ political consciousness whereby class and color intersect.

In brief, Uncle Sam seeks to end Holiday’s career as a popular singer because she performs Strange Fruit, the anti-lynching ballad that Abel Meeropol, who with his wife adopted the sons of the executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, wrote.  Holiday’s then-husband and others prodded her to cease and desist singing Strange Fruit.

As the lead government agent aiming to muffle her artistic voice of dissent, Harry J. Anslinger is a proxy for Uncle Sam’s anti-black drug policies. The aim is to stifle the fledgling civil rights movement. Such punitive policies are systemic. They range from cooptation to repression.

Johan Hari’s 2015 book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs is the basis for Daniels’ The United States Vs. Billie Holiday. The and now, the Drug War, U.S.-style, is an excuse to persecute and prosecute African Americans. Daniels shows how Uncle Sam harmed one of the greatest singers of the 20thcentury, a relevant tendency that connects to the ongoing police killings of unarmed black and brown Americans.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email