Billie Holiday’s complex life explored in two new films
JORDANNAH ELIZABETH | 2/11/2021, midnight
For those curious about the tumultuous life of one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, Billie Holiday, 2021 offers new and fresh perspectives on the late vocalist.
“Billie” is a stark and moody documentary on Billie Holiday that explores her short time on this planet through tape cassette recordings of interviews with her closest friends, colleagues, lovers and family conducted by jazz critic and biographer, Linda Kuehl. The film intertwines Billie’s story with Kuehl’s, who mysteriously died in 1978 while attempting to write a more sympathetic and acutely accurate account of the singer’s life with the understanding that the dominant white male jazz critic lens lacked empathy for Lady Day. Kuehl worked laboriously on the book, many times at the expense of her mental health and safety. A number of the interviews were contentious and, to Linda’s memory and assumed chagrin, continued to paint Holiday as a victim. In many ways, Holiday was a victim, but the film, which should be viewed as a historical resource with a unique view of the singer, fails to truly depict Holiday’s true agency. She is spoken about in-depth by those who were in her inner and social circles, but it is uncertain if anyone truly knew Billie on a deeply intimate level. She is called a masochist and a psychopath by interviewees which denotes a lack of awareness of her emotional sensitivity, and only scratches the surface of Holiday’s larger-than-life, wealthy and glamorous persona.
When it comes to her biographer, Linda, the story creates speculation that she may have been harmed and killed by someone who knew about her interviews and wanted to silence her. This eerie revelation brings up the question of why a woman jazz critic was slain while white male journalists who wrote about Billie were left safe and unscathed. This film should be seen, if anything, as an inside look at the incredible racism and sexism that plagued the jazz world during the 1930s through 1950s, as it gives voice to many major and minor players in the music community during that era.
You can find “Billie” on Apple TV, Amazon, and the DVD is set for release Feb. 9. For more information, visit www.greenwichentertainment.com/film/billie/
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is a new Lee Daniels film that gleans from historical events to tell the story of Billie Holiday’s infiltration and arrest by the FBI. Actress Andra Day speaks in a raspy voice that portrays an uncanny likeness to the singer’s real voice. Her performance is memorable and admirable as she takes on Billie’s spirit with seriousness and reverence. “Moonlight” star Trevante Rhodes plays Jimmy Fletcher, an ambitious Black FBI agent who is ordered to gain information on Billie and eventually have her arrested for drug charges. The film makes it clear that Billie was unfairly targeted by Fletcher’s boss, the racist agent Harry Anslinger who was the very first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. His motives were to silence Holiday from singing “Strange Fruit,” a searing song about lynching written by Abel Meeropol (also known as Lewis Allan), a Jewish member of the Communist Party. Anslinger, heading a brand new drug bureau, would kill two birds with one stone: silence a communist songwriter and destroy the jazz community, whom he hated, by pulling its blossoming rose by the root.
Holiday and Fletcher fall in love, but this does not stop Billie’s fate of being indicted and sent to jail for a year for possession of narcotics. With a strong supporting cast including Natasha Lyonne, LaKeith Stanfield, Tyler James Williams, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, this fictional film about Billie Holiday’s 1947 arrest is sensational. The film embodies a quiet depth and is able to embed many historically correct morsels of Holiday’s life. Though it wades through a disturbing tale, the film is very romantic and at times humorous. This film is definitely recommended for anyone who wants to see the beauty in Billie Holiday with her strengths, weaknesses and profound resilience.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” will be released on Hulu Feb. 26.