To millions in America and around the world, Billie Holiday—or “Lady Day,” as she was known—was merely a musical legend, a woman as effortlessly graceful as she was inspirational. To the U.S. government, however, she was yet another casualty in the often racist War on Drugs that first found its footing in 1930, when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established.
This public-versus-private tension is explored in Lee Daniels’s new Hulu biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and the story that Daniels tells is one that holds relevance not just for fans of Holiday, but for every person who has been targeted by America’s long-standing criminalization of drug consumption and addiction (and, arguably even more so, for the many non-drug-using Americans in whose name aggressive anti-drug policy is putatively carried out).
In the film, Andra Day shines in her portrayal of both the glamour of Holiday’s public persona and the depths of her drug dependency and legal troubles. While it makes a valiant effort to capture the import of Holiday’s legacy, it’s just as skillful at underlining the ways in which Holiday’s myriad problems were quintessentially American in their making.
It’s worth noting that while Holiday was being relentlessly pursued and detained by the U.S. government for her narcotic dependency, white stars like Judy Garland were being drugged by the studio system to stay slim and energetic on set; a contrast that gets to the heart of the stymying nature of America’s drug policy, still in evidence today (just take a look at the sentencing disparity for crack vs. powder cocaine, which falls largely along racial lines).
Writer Leslie Jamison refers to the U.S.’s racially motivated case against Holiday in her 2017 addiction memoir The Recovering, noting that Holiday had been “treated like a criminal as long as she could remember” due, in part, to her history of sexual abuse. Jamison outlines the ways in which Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger tormented Holiday over the course of her too-short life, including by remanding her to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in 1947 and shackling her to her hospital bed when she was near death.
Jamison ties Anslinger’s dogged pursuit of Holiday to the methods that the state has always used to criminalize Black women (think of the “crack mother” stereotype), writing that the world turned its back on Holiday “when her self-destruction was no longer luminous.” It’s that slow descent—from “luminosity” to illness and desperation—that is carefully tracked in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and the care that Daniels takes with Holiday’s story feels like a fitting tribute to her brief yet brilliant life.