'The United States vs. Billie Holiday': What Really Happened

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

Hulu's The United States v. Billie Holiday, streaming now on the platform, follows the titular music legend in her later years amid her long-standing battle with the U.S. government regarding her seminal song, "Strange Fruit." Directed by Lee Daniels and starring Andra Day in her debut film role, Lady Day's on-screen journey includes being pursued by the FBI in light of her involvement with the civil rights movement, her struggle with drug use, and her complicated romantic relationships. But how much of the film is true?

The Release of "Strange Fruit"

Holiday's song, "Strange Fruit," is a central point of the film. Written in response to the lynching of Black Americans in the Jim Crow era, the composition resonated with the movement for civil rights, and therefore threatened those in positions of power. In the film's depiction, Holiday's impact with the emotional song made her a target in the eyes of the federal government.

The real Holiday did record the song in 1939. However, it was originally written by poet, teacher, and activist Abel Meeropol, from New York. He was moved to write a poem, feeling appalled by racism in America and particularly disturbed by a photograph of a lynching that he said "haunted" him "for days," according to NPR. He later set his words to music and played the song for a New York nightclub owner, who then passed it on to Holiday.

"Billie Holiday's styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have," Meeropol said, according to The Guardian. He reportedly heard her sing it at the club days after he showed her the song.

Holiday would continue singing the song for the Cafe Society crowd, and they ate it up. According to Holiday biographer Julia Blackburn, the singer was itching to record the song after seeing the audience reactions. Her label, Columbia, wouldn't allow it, but let her record with the Commodore label, pairing the record with the ballad "Fine and Mellow." It sold more than a million copies and rose to number 16 on the charts.

Her Trouble with the FBI

Blackburn writes that lynching "was at its most virulent between 1900 and 1920." In fact, a timeline on the Library of Congress shows that 106 Black Americans were reportedly lynched in the year 1900 alone. So as a popular protest song, "Strange Fruit" helped galvanize an anti-lynching movement across the country. Protesters sent the song to Congress in hopes of passing an anti-lynching bill, per the BBC.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday depicts the FBI chasing Holiday for her drug use and locking her away on narcotics charges as a roundabout way to suppress her musical activism. And that may be true. Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), the leading agent hunting Holiday, was a real person; he became the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, according to Politico.

He'd heard rumblings that the singer was using heroin and assigned Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), a Black FBI agent, to follow her, journalist Johann Hari revealed in his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, per Politico. Holiday received her first threat from the bureau in 1939, after performing "Strange Fruit" on the stage in New York. Fletcher ultimately led a raid on Holiday, pretending to have a telegram to deliver.

What really did her in was when her abusive husband, Louis McKay, got involved. He learned of Anslinger's plan and agreed to set her up, Hari reported. Holiday was busted again, arrested, and put on trial. The case was called The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and in a memoir, she wrote, "That's just the way it felt." She was sentenced to a year at a West Virginia prison. When she was finally released, she had lost her cabaret license, prohibiting her from performing where alcohol was served—meaning she couldn't perform at jazz clubs.

Anslinger took a break from Holiday's case but later returned with a different narcotics agent, Colonel George White. According to Biography, White busted Holiday at San Francisco's Mark Twain Hotel, even though she claimed to have been clean for a year. He said he found opium in her garbage can and a heroin kit in her bathroom. "They bust her, and it's pretty clear, I think, from reading the historical documents, that he planted drugs on Billie Holiday that night," Hari told NPR of the raid.

Since then, Holiday struggled to get better, though she continued to sing "Strange Fruit." In 1959, she collapsed and was hospitalized. Still, Anslinger’s team arrested her on her hospital bed, Hari revealed. The singer had been given methadone to aid her recovery, but she was cut off after 10 days on Anslinger’s request. Holiday died on July 17, 1959.

About That Romance …

Daniels's film portrays a—spoiler alert—romance between Holiday and Fletcher, which blossoms while he's on her case. And it seems like their dalliance didn't just exist on-screen. Politico reported that after one run-in following the first raid, Fletcher and Holiday "talked for hours"; they even danced together at Club Ebony. "And I had so many close conversations with her, about so many things," Fletcher had said in a rare interview. "She was the type who would make anyone sympathetic because she was the loving type."

Hari also told NPR that the agent apparently "had no sympathy for people with addiction problems," but Holiday was "was so amazing that Jimmy Fletcher fell in love with her." Still, he stayed true to his job. "She's really haunted by what Jimmy Fletcher did to her—even years later," Hari added. "And his whole life, he felt really guilty about what he did."

Screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks said that when she was approached for the film, she could see the story "right away." She told The Hollywood Reporter, "I could see this love affair that she has with Jimmy Fletcher, because it tells the story of the love affair that Black Americans have with America. [It's about a] Black American woman living in America who's been in love with her country her whole life. Black Americans love this country, often at our peril."

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