The Unicorn Scale: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

By Jennie Roberson

April 18, 2021

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Photo credit: Hulu

Hello, Unicorns old and new! I hope everyone is enjoying the bloom of spring in the northern hemisphere and the crispy chill of an oncoming fall in the southern hemisphere. It’s also awards season where I’m at, and despite the fact that this year’s season looks a whole lot different due to the pandemic-panorama-panini, movies are still being made. The Oscars are right around the corner, and what stuck out to me is that we have not one but two Best Actress roles based on real-life bi women of color. We’ve already covered Viola Davis’ turn as Mother of the Blues Ma Rainey, so I think it’s high time we took a closer look at Andra Day’s turn as Lady Day in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.

Photo/Hulu

Before I get too far into this review, I should impart a few disclaimers before I proceed. First and foremost, there will be SPOILERS on this historical drama, directed by Lee Daniels and penned by Suzan-Lori Parks. Also, this should come as no surprise for anyone who has even a passing knowledge on the life of Billie Holiday, but this film needs just about every content warning you can think of (and then some) — including but not limited to drug and alcohol use, physical and verbal abuse, discussions of sexual assault, racist imagery and language, etc. — just some of the things I can think of off the top of my head.) 

Finally, if this is your first time arriving at this column, it would probably be wise to check out more about the metric I’m using to rate the film by heading over here for a definition.

The United States Vs. Billie Holiday is a 2021 film on Hulu which examines a chapter of blues singer Holiday’s personal and professional life as she dared to sing the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” throughout the Jim Crow era — much to the chagrin of the Federal Department of Narcotics, who do everything in their power to discredit and disempower her.

What I Liked:

There’s absolutely no question that Andra Day sank her teeth into this meaty role with an intensity that does merit the snapping of necks during awards season. Day plays Holiday with a ferocity the part demands, unafraid to send stolen glances to lovers of multiple genders throughout the film. Day’s performance carries the film with a riveting devotion we crave in biopics but often don’t get, instead usually receiving scenery-chewing turns.

Photo/Hulu

But this column is about focusing on the queer representation of a character or person, so I want to hone in on that element of United States. While it may be common knowledge that Holiday was bi and led an on-again, off-again affair with actress Tallulah Bankhead (portrayed here by Natasha Lyonne) for the better part of a decade, it’s an element of the torch singer’s storied life we don’t often get to see on film. So for that, I did appreciate the scenes, which included their clear attraction and relationship underpinning motives and understandings of each other’s characters.

Photo/Hulu

What I Didn't Like:

However, my appreciation of the bi portrayal ends there. While we do get some veiled references to Holiday’s relationship with Bankhead (which is worthy of its own film), instead, we get this toothless tribute to her queerness. Some stolen glances and a hand held is all we get for Bankhead. Instead, screenwriter Parks completely fabricates a romance between Holiday and federal agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) who betrayed the songstress (and regretted it) as a form of audience surrogacy to Holiday’s life. 

I know this isn’t technically bi erasure, but when a film gives so much screen time to not only her abusive husband but also creates a whole other male lover, it sure feels like it. In this way, they do Holiday dirty, and she had more than her share of that in her own lifetime. Lyonne is not only wasted here, but her whole storyline disappears into the background in favor of a gratuitous focus on Holiday’s drug use. Lyonne's scenes serve as barely an homage to her queerness as Bankhead fades into the story’s shadows. This both does a disservice to these lovers and cheapens the time their story deserved to shine.

Photo/Hulu

The Rating:

Though Day turns in a tour-de-force performance, United States robs Holiday’s story of what little joy she was able to experience, leaving us with a less-nuanced portrayal than these powerhouses could have brought forth. History eventually vindicated the musician (“Strange Fruit” is now preserved by the Library of Congress as a recording of cultural significance), but the film ultimately does too little to try to honor one of the most important American singers of the 20th century. I don’t know how to describe the taste that was left in my mouth in this non-telling of Holiday’s bisexuality, but the only way I can describe it is “why bother”?

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