The titular character of The United States vs. Billie Holiday was among the most influential jazz musicians of her era, and this recent biopic streaming on Hulu captures the at-times unbelievable true story of her life. Holiday’s iconic song “Strange Fruit” is at the center of the film, and the brutal depiction of lynching serves as her lasting legacy in the enduring fight for civil rights. But the film includes far more than the merely the song, weaving her personal relationships, tumultuous upbringing, and struggles with addiction into a sprawling narrative. Some of it is Hollywood embellishment, but much is surprisingly historically accurate.
Billie Holiday was born in 1915 to an unwed couple, her father exiting the picture shortly thereafter. Despite her becoming the victim of sexual assault and trafficking before reaching age 14, she began a burgeoning musical career and recorded her debut single at 18. Her distinctive vocal style, akin to improvisational jazz, helped her ascend to stardom when, in 1939, she first performed the song that would become her legacy, “Strange Fruit.” In response to the song’s confrontation of racism in the South, the government set about delegitimizing Holiday and suppressing performances of “Strange Fruit,” using Holiday’s drug habit to tarnish her reputation in the public eye. She died of cirrhosis in 1959, at age 44.
The film The United States vs. Billie Holiday does its best to keep up with a life chock-full of intrigue, leaving many to wonder if everything seen on the screen is based in fact or added to make the movie more exciting. Andra Day’s riveting breakout performance in the lead role captured the attention of critics and audiences alike, but it’s understandable if viewers had questions about the veracity of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) and company, and the other situations presented by writer Suzan-Lori Parks and director Lee Daniels. In fact, an overwhelming majority of the material is based directly on the true story, with much of the research derived from Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.
Much like the recent HBO Max release Judas & The Black Messiah, The United States vs. Billie Holiday features a Black federal agent infiltrating the story of a Black civil rights activist. This character takes the form of Jimmy Fletcher, an aspirational, upright Black man working with Anslinger to catch Holiday on drug offenses. Though he initially believes himself to be in the moral right, he is later taken with Holiday’s resilience and humanity, and he comes to regret his job as he falls in love with her, though some may wonder if Fletcher actually existed and if so, whether or not he really had a relationship with Holiday.
According to the book on which the film is based, Fletcher was indeed a real person and was indeed regretful for his role in Holiday’s persecution at the hands of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Though there’s no way to verify whether the two shared a sexual relationship, they reportedly did enjoy long conversations and grew quite close. What’s more, the scene in which Holiday stripped down in front of him and fellow officers is directly taken from Hari’s img text. The filmmakers actually omitted her further defiance: Holiday “pissed in front of them, defying them to watch.”
In The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Talulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) is a close friend of Holiday’s and the two appear to share some kind of sexual tension. Bankhead was an actor, most well-known for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and for her allegedly promiscuous sex life. It was widely rumored she and Holiday shared an intimate relationship, though it’s understandably difficult to confirm these due to the danger associated with being out at the time. It’s led many to speculate Billie Holiday was bisexual. Many have accepted this as fact, and while the assumption isn’t unreasonable, it’s nearly impossible to say for certain.
As cruel and unabashedly corrupt as it may seem, this is actually true. Anslinger and company, including Holiday’s third husband, worked to plant drugs on Holiday as she lay dying, and arrested her for possession in the hospital. According to Britannica, Holiday begged the hospital to give her treatment, but they took her off the drug methadone, forcing her body to detox on its own. With her liver function impaired by cirrhosis, that was an impossibility. She died on July 17th, 1959. She was 44.
In the film, Holiday and Fletcher enter a dream-like sequence taking a tour of Billie’s childhood trauma. At one point, they witness a little girl crying for her father, who has been lynched. It’s suggested in the movie that Holiday’s father was lynched, and it’s why Billie recorded “Strange Fruit.” In actuality, the lyrics to the song were written by a Jewish educator from New York named Abel Meeropol, adapted from his poem “Bitter Fruit.” Meeropol was an anti-racist activist responding to the lynchings in the south. Holiday began singing the song in 1939. In lending it her distinctive, authentic musical style and championing its performance at great personal cost, the song became as history remembers it: hers. Though she was not witness to a family member being lynched, the song resonated with Billie Holiday’s experience as a Black woman in early-20th-century America. She once described how it made her think of her father, who died from a lung disorder after being turned away from a hospital due to racial prejudice. In 1999, Time Magazine named it the “Song of the Century.”
A remarkable number of characters and events depicted in The United States vs. Billie Holiday are true to their historical origins. From Fletcher, to Anslinger’s ruthless pursuit of Holiday right up to her death, these all have verifiable roots in history. The one purely invented character belongs to Leslie Jordan, whose casually racist interviewer Reginald Lord Devine was written for the film as a framing device, though in speaking with Variety, Lee Daniels said he based Devine on “a fusion of Quentin Crisp and Skip E. Lowe.” Da’Vine Joy and Miss Lawrence also play characters who lack historical records, her confidant and stylist respectively, but the film doesn’t suffer for their inclusion. All told, somewhat similar to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The United States vs. Billie Holiday paints a shockingly accurate portrait of a jazz icon’s struggle against a predatory system that sought to keep her down.