Protest Song

Lee Daniels burst onto the filmmaking scene with his second movie, 2009’s Precious, which saw him nominated for two Oscars. Inside the next four years two more movies followed – The Paperboy and The Butler – but since then, he’s been quiet on the filmmaking front. His work has been in television, co-creating the record industry-set soap Empire. So his return to film should be greeted with interest, especially as he’s exploring the life and work of legendary singer Billie Holiday.

The result is a film that might be considered quite conventional compared to some of his earlier work, but it boasts a splendid lead turn by singer-songwriter Andra Day as Holiday. As the title suggests, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is less about her music and more about her struggles – against the government, primarily, but also a segregated society. And then there are the issues ingrained in her own life – violence, abuse, prostitution, drug addiction. She endured them all.

As a companion to James Erskine’s recent investigative documentary Billie, Daniels’ film makes fascinating viewing. It’s inspired by a portion of the 2015 book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari, which dealt with drug legislation. That account contained a segment focusing on the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ attempt to bring down Holiday for her drug use – as part of a wider operation to destabilise black political culture. The root of all this seems to be Holiday’s insistence on singing Strange Fruit, her anti-lynching torch song that turned her into a star.

Garrett Hedlund plays Harry Anslinger, the Bureau chief, who hires the African American Jimmy Fletcher (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes) to go undercover – he eventually arrests Holiday but not before they’ve had an affair. It makes for a complex, sticky relationship, particularly when Holiday continues the romance even after realising Fletcher’s connections to the authorities. There are reminders here of Seberg, the film starring Kristen Stewart as Jean Seberg, the Sixties icon hounded by the FBI for her political beliefs.

Lending the film real brilliance, Day brings soul to her renditions of Holiday’s work on stage – such as Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do. Daniels showcases these scenes respectfully; this is not the maverick director of Precious but a more mature filmmaker who has taken on an important cultural figure and given her a stage – metaphorical and otherwise – that is long overdue. As a film, it’s a stark reminder of the courage Holiday required to face a deeply prejudiced world.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is available on Sky Cinema from 27 February. For more details, click here.

James Mottram