In The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Trevante Rhodes plays the bad guy, the love interest, and the audience surrogate, all at once. The film is about the life of jazz singer Billie Holiday (mesmerizingly played by Andra Day) at the time in her life when she was being targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, an early version of the DEA. Holiday, who was a heroin addict, was imprisoned for drug possession, but in reality, the feds were after her because she was a powerful, Black celebrity and a threat to the status quo of white, racist life. Rhodes’ character, Jimmy Fletcher, was a Black agent who was tasked with tracking Holiday’s every move. He also, the movie puts forth, fell in love with her.
If you Google Fletcher, you won’t find out too much about him that isn’t in the film or in Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, on which it's based. For Rhodes, this was a good thing.
“That gives me an opportunity to really cultivate a character from the ground up,” he told Refinery29 ahead of the film’s February 26 release on Hulu. At the moment, Rhodes is best known for his starring role in Best Picture winner Moonlight. The actor also appeared opposite Sandra Bullock in the 2018 Netflix movie Bird Box.
“I read a few books,” the 31-year-old actor said. “I more gifted myself the opportunity to try to put myself into his shoes and to really take in his influences, whether it be musically or the famous people of that time. Because in one of the books I read [I found] that's something that he really prided himself on, his ability to really maneuver and be whoever he needed to be in any situation, whether it was with someone who was the ritziest or someone who was in the slums.”
At times in the movie, Fletcher is our entry point into Holiday’s world. When he hangs out with her boisterous entourage while they drink and do drugs backstage, he’s the quiet outsider looking in. That said, it’s just as easy to view Fletcher as a traitor. He was a Black man assigned with taking down a Black woman who was actually, vocally, standing up for her community, particularly with her anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit." That said, Fletcher was also being taken advantage of by his white superiors, who were never going to see him as an equal, especially in the 1940s and ‘50s.
It’s a lot to contend with, and Rhodes found a way to connect. It’s just that all the questions about it have him questioning himself.
“The more I talk to you guys, man, the more I feel bad about being able to sympathize and empathize with this,” Rhodes says when asked about Fletcher’s motivations. “The way I saw it is, at least in my life, I see a lot of people who will do anything to be successful or to better themselves, especially when they're trying to find themselves. And he — at least to me — seemed like someone really trying to find themselves in the world and doing that through this job where people were taking advantage of him.”
Rhodes sees Fletcher as someone who got in deeper and deeper to “this gunk of a situation” and even ended up falling in love. “To me, it’s really kind of true to life, to the mess that I know life to be.” Rhodes believes that Fletcher “had to hurt” when it came to how he treated Holiday.
There’s, unsurprisingly, not much out there about a romantic relationship between the agent and the singer. Rhodes says he read an excerpt of an interview with Fletcher and it was what Fletcher didn’t say that struck a chord with him. “There was a distinct question that the interviewer had about their love, and it was just his response that really gifted me a unique answer,” he says. “It was just stuff like that makes the character to me. Really, really small like that.”
While there’s some gray area when it comes to what we really know about Fletcher, something that was created for the film was Rhodes’ family background, which contrasts that of Holiday’s. The singer grew up poor, spending time in brothels with her mother, and performing sex work as a teenager, which she was arrested for. Fletcher, on the other hand, is shown as coming from a well-off background with a supportive mother, albeit one who doesn’t approve of his new career.
“That's something that [director] Lee [Daniels] wanted to embellish a little bit to show that aspect of a rich Black family during that era, because we don't see too many depictions of that,” Rhodes explains.
With the subject matter of the film being so heavy, Rhodes describes the experience of making The United States vs. Billie Holiday as “a really weighty feeling, but a good weight.” And while his character was the one he had to delve deep on, like anyone else seeing the film, he was most affected by Holiday.
“The thing that I get from watching the film — aside from the emotions and just being there — is her courage, and her resilience, and the story about this person who they were trying to bring down because she was doing the right thing for her people,” Rhodes says. “You see that everyday. That's our life. So, just keep fighting, man. That’s just what I keep saying. Whenever I see that movie, there’s a fire in me that continues to just burn."