Movie Review: 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

Directed by Lee Daniels and starring Andra Day, The United States. vs, Billie Holiday depicts the jazz singer as an early victim of the War on Drugs.

Tormented by the Feds because of her drug use and song choices, Holiday is a tragic figure in the jazz movement of the '30s and '40s. The singer was just 44 when she died in 1959.

Everything changed for Holiday when, in 1939, she recorded "Strange Fruit," a song about Blacks being lynched in the South. The FBI pursued Holiday from that point on, arresting her several times for heroin and opium possession. She spent a year in jail in 1947.

Garrett Hedlund, who plays Narcotics Bureau chief Harry J. Anslinger, says in the promo feature below about the nation's first drug czar:

"He wanted to make an example out of her. No matter how hard he tried, she still gets up and she wins the hearts of the crowd and this infuriates him."

Holiday may have won hearts, but she was arrested a last time and cuffed to her hospital bed as she laid dying from cirrhrosis. That's the enduring image of Daniels' 130-minute film.

However, Hedlund's too handsome to be credible as the stubby, tough-talking Anslinger.

On the other hand, Day dives right into Lady Day's raunchy character. She curses, drinks and smokes up a storm, shoots heroin (her "medicine") and enjoys rough sex. Day's vocals are convincing and her acting is surprisingly solid for such a meaty title role. 

To nab Holiday, Anslinger and the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover hire a number of Black and Hispanic agents who infiltrate the jazz scene. Once Holiday is in the news over "Strange Fruit." the focus shifts to her. Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) sets Holiday up and falls for her at the same time. Their off-again, on-again relationship is awkward and unfulfilling. 

But it's one of the main contradictions in Holiday's llfe and this movie: She knowingly dated her jailer. How do you reconcile that? 

James Erskine's 2020 documentary Billie tells a similar story. 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is currently streaming on Hulu.

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Pot Scene

Prez smokes in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."

Saxophonist Lester Young (Tyler James Williams) rolls a joint and smokes it during a rehearsal.


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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.