The United States vs Billie Holiday | Third Space
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The United States vs Billie Holiday

Fri 16 Apr 2021
The dark side of the beautiful tones of Holiday's music
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3.5 out of 5 stars

Billie Holiday is an artist who has managed to transcend time with her unique sound and classic tunes that did more than define an era. From the hypnotic tones of Lover Man to God Bless The Child's anthem, her voice managed to grab the hearts of multiple generations. Yet, it was the controversial Strange Fruit that many celebrated, but led her to become the Federal Bureau of Investigation target for most of her career.

She was called Lady Day (Andra Day) by her friends and many musicians who worked with her over the years. Billie had become a cottage industry within herself despite being a woman of colour in the 30s and 40s. She worked in the top jazz clubs, some of the world’s most prestigious theatres and multiple cinematic roles. Holiday did not seem to put a step wrong, except for some of her life choices. Her drug use and musician's lifestyle put her on the radar of the head of the Federal Department of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund). He had problems with her music, but the federal agent did his best to discredit her and hold her to account because of her public struggle with drugs.

The FBI infiltrated her inner circle by utilising black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). Through his work, the young agent managed to get Billie incarcerated for one year as she worked to kick her drug habit. As she was released from jail, the singer realised that she no longer held a cabaret license in New York and could not legally perform in local clubs. This led her to tour across America where she would sing in some of the country's biggest venues. It was during this tour that she was continually hounded by the FBI. Also, Fletcher needed to figure out how he could get closer to the artist and gain her entourage's trust.

Lee Daniels (The Butler, Monster Ball) was inspired by Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs for his latest biographical sketch on one of music’s most recognisable voices. He focuses on the middle to later stages of Holiday’s career when she struggles with her substance abuse and at the height of her battle with the Bureau. This became a dark journey for the artist as the award-winning director shows how Lady Day chose a hard existence associated with the music industry. Daniels does not hold back in this portrayal of the artist's life as he shows confronting images of drug use, sexual abuse and Billie’s rapid health deterioration. Even though she was surrounded by people who loved and cared for her, most days were filled with self-destructive tendencies. Choices that led to her death at 44 years of age.

Yet, within this raw and brutal world, there was a glimmer of beauty that came whenever she went on stage. Andra Day managed to embody the sound and personality of this embattled artist. Despite being her first role of note, she deserves credit for delivering one of the best performances on screen this year. Even though the story could have been edited down a bit and still had the same impact, Day manages to carry this tale through towards its tragic end while making a strong statement against the unfortunate racism that continues to influence the American narrative. The United States vs Billie Holiday manages to be an inventive and compelling retelling of a musical legend that shows why her voice still works to speak to us across the generations.

REEL DIALOGUE: What does the Bible say about illegal drugs?

Some could argue that the Bible does not say anything about illicit drug usage, which is true. Cocaine, heroin, marijuana, cannabis, or any other illegal drugs are not mentioned throughout the canon of scripture. To be clear, their exclusion does not mean that God does not have something to say about them or that it gives license to use them.

Beyond being bad for your health and unacceptable behaviour in our society, one thing that Christians are called to in the Bible is to respect and obey the laws of the land. Passages in the old and new testaments like Ecclesiastes 8:2-5; Matthew 22:21; 23:2-3; and Romans 13:1-7 support the argument against the use of illegal drugs. Even with all of the various arguments for legalising drugs, keep in mind that simply disagreeing with a law does not justify breaking that law.

This is merely scratching the surface in this discussion. Still, there is hope that it can help stop this behaviour from destroying societies around the world.

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