The life of bisexual blues singer Billie Holiday has been covered in pop culture before. Diana Ross played her in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, and Audra McDonald won a Tony Award for portraying her in the play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. But Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday, starring a riveting Andra Day in her first film role ever as the titular Holiday, goes deep into examining a government-led attempt to silence her for singing “Strange Fruit” in public. They claimed that the song, which depicts the lynching of Black people, incited violence. And one FBI agent in particular, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), made it his mission to take Holiday down.
Holiday was a known drug user, as the film depicts, and Anslinger uses it against her, hiring a young Black man, Jimmy Fletcher (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes) to do his bidding and catch Holiday holding enough junk to lock her away. As the title of the film gives away, he succeeds in taking Holiday’s voice from her — for a time.
Based on Johann Hari’s novel and with a screenplay by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the film also highlights some of Holiday’s romantic entanglements with Jimmy; her volatile husband and manager, McKay (Rob Morgan); and actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne).
Watch the trailer for the culturally important movie below. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is out on Hulu on February 26.