LDaniels’ bland and coerced treatment in late-life television movies of jazz legend Billie Holiday, incarcerated on a drug charge and officially harassed long after his release, is fatally compromised by his own fantasy obtuse and misjudged romantic. The film recounts that, after a life of abuse by men and a persistent campaign of victimization by federal agents enraged by his brave anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, Holiday’s emotional life was redeemed by a secret and gallant love story. with an undercover federal agent. named Jimmy Fletcher; that is, someone who works for the same people who had made life a pittance.
Holiday is played by singer Andra Day and Fletcher by Trevante Rhodes; Garrett Hedlund plays Harry Anslinger, the quiet racist boss of the Federal Office of Narcotics. Fletcher was one of the African-American agents employed by Anslinger after World War II to infiltrate jazz clubs to eradicate drug use and to make drugs the pretext for repressing black political culture. Until recently, Fletcher had been considered a real-life but minor figure in Holiday’s life: he stayed out of the jazz scene, befriended Holiday, and eventually, to his fury, arrested her. He later told Holiday’s future biographer Linda Kuehl in an interview recorded in the 1970s that he always regretted the betrayal, that she had forgiven him, and lovingly inscribed a copy of her autobiography for him.
After Kuehl’s death in 1978, a strange footnote in Holiday’s life recently investigated by documentary filmmaker James Erskine, various biographers made use of his audiotapes without paying much attention to Fletcher. But in 2015, British journalist Johann Hari published a book on drug law called Chasing the Scream, with a section on the war on drugs against Billie Holiday on which this film is based. In that, Hari boldly declares his intuition that Fletcher had “fallen in love” with Holiday.. Maybe he had. And maybe she fell in love with him. But there is something tonally very strange about elevating this imaginary love story to an accepted part of her life, with the sensitive G-man man, Fletcher, supporting herself, following her on the tour, and finally mesmerizing Billie with his gentle and considerate love. with Billie doesn’t care that I’m still working for the feds. And that’s especially so when, in real life, Billie Holiday’s magnificent courage and defiance took place despite the men and their reactionary harassment.
The movie only comes to life when Day sings the Holiday songs, like It’s nobody’s business if I do it, with her poignant and shocking lyrics about abuse: “I’d rather have my man hit me / than jump up and leave me.” The film conceivably suggests that the tragic dysfunction of accepting domestic violence as the price of love is comparable to Fletcher’s alleged crisis of loyalty and self-esteem. But in the movie, Fletcher doesn’t seem to be worried about so much crisis. Even when he takes heroin with Holiday to show some kind of solidarity, the next traumatized flashback is in Holiday’s mind, not his, back to his own brutal upbringing of violence and rape.
Then, of course, there’s the main event itself: the remarkable Strange Fruit, a song of radical protest and confrontation that was for decades the only public acknowledgment in mainstream American culture that lynching existed. It’s understandable that screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks waits until the third act before it’s done in full. Day’s interpretation is sincere. But the direction and storytelling are laborious, without the flair and incorrectness of previous Daniels films like Precious (2008) and The Paperboy (2012). A cloud of solemnity and reverence hangs over him, briefly dispelled by the music itself.
• Released February 27 in Sky Cinema.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism