When you think of Billie Holiday, you might think of her anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" or another of her classics like "God Bless the Child." Maybe you think of her signature look of bold lipstick and flowers in her hair. Perhaps you've heard about her struggles with drug addiction. But, after watching The United States vs. Billie Holiday, it's impossible not to see Holiday in a different light, beyond that of a legendary singer.
The new film from director Lee Daniels focuses on Holiday's (Andra Day) addiction to heroin and the way the Federal Bureau of Narcotics attempted to take her down. They knew they could catch her on drug charges, but as the film shows, the head of the FBN, Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) was actually targeting her because she was a popular Black woman who had an anti-lynching protest song as one of her biggest hits.
The movie shows Holiday's relationships, her friendships, the highs and lows of her career, and briefly touches on her childhood. But how accurate is all of this to what really happened in Holiday's life?
Billie Holiday's Early Life & Real Name
The United States vs. Billie Holiday shows Holiday's childhood during a flashback. A young Holiday — who was then called her birth name, Eleanora — is living in a brothel with her mother, who kicks her out, telling her she should become a sex worker herself.
This scene condenses a lot of information into a couple of minutes. (It's also not meant to seem entirely like reality, since it's part of a drug trip scene.) In real life, Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia in 1915 and spent much of her childhood in Baltimore. When she was a young teen, she and her mother moved to New York. By the time she was 16, reports Time, they were both sex workers. Holiday eventually got arrested for prostitution.
The Height of Billie Holiday's Career & "Strange Fruit"
Holiday's story in the film begins in 1947 when she was 32 years old. At this point, she was well into her career after being discovered when she was 20 and "Strange Fruit" was well known. As a reference point, "Strange Fruit" was recorded in 1939 and "God Bless the Child" in 1941, so the movie begins when Holiday's career is taking a turn for the worst.
Holiday married her first husband, Jimmy Monroe (Erik LaRay Harvey) in 1941 and they divorced in 1947, which is in line with what we see in the movie. According to Biography, she began doing hard drugs in the early '40s with Monroe, and started on heroin with her boyfriend and trumpeter Joe Guy (Melvin Gregg).
The Takedown & Trial Of Billie Holiday
If you've seen the movie, the number one thing you're probably wondering about is what Holiday's relationship was really like with Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). Fletcher really was a federal agent and he really was hired to infiltrate Holiday's circle. One of the key differences between real life and the film is that Fletcher's bust of Holiday isn't the one that led directly to her prison sentence. Holiday was busted on drugs multiple times before she was convicted, according to Johann Hari's book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, on which the film is based.
Is it true that Holiday asked to be sent to rehab when she was sentenced, but instead was sent to prison. She spent nearly one year in prison in West Virginia.
As for the relationship between Holiday and Fletcher, not too much is known, so the film takes some liberties. "I had so many close conversations with her, about so many things," Fletcher once said, according to Hari's book. "She was the type who would make anyone sympathetic because she was the loving type." Trevante Rhodes, who plays Fletcher in the movie, told Refinery29 that he gathered from an interview he read with Fletcher that the agent really did love Holiday, but that he had to create a character for the film.
Billie Holiday After Prison, Until Her Death
Holiday lost her cabaret card as part of her sentencing, which meant she couldn't perform in small clubs. But, as seen the movie, she really did perform at Carnegie Hall after prison and was able to tour. She was also arrested again during this time.
In 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis, which meant the function of her liver was impaired. She was hospitalised, and it's true that she was literally arrested on her deathbed for drug possession. According to Britannica, she was denied methadone treatment and her body had to detox on its own. Holiday died in the hospital at age 44.
As you can, see the general story of Holiday's life is depicted accurately in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. But, as the film focuses on Holiday and Fletcher, details had to be created to tell that story and some presumptions made about their relationship. And, of course, there's plenty that was left out — the movie doesn't go too in depth about her marriages, for one thing. But no one's full life story — especially that of one of the world's most legendary artists — can be told in two hours.