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Separating Fact from Fiction: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

How did one song turn a leading jazz singer into Enemy No. 1?
  • Andra Day stars in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. (Hulu)
    Andra Day stars in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. (Hulu)

    The legend of Billie Holiday began well before her death in 1959 at the age of 44. Her life, shortened by addictions to drugs and alcohol, left behind an extraordinary legacy of recordings featuring her incomparable voice. The erotic simplicity of her jazz style, and the bottomless glass of pain that she reached for when singing the blues, revealed with shocking transparency an artist who'd seen and lived plenty in those 44 years.

    Previous biographical treatments of Holiday have emphasized this personal side, the tragedies and triumphs of her life. (My favorite Billie Holiday photograph shows her at a recording gig late in life, staring straight down, summoning her tired-ass muse while holding a drink.) But that is not the person that director Lee Daniels has chosen to emphasize in his new Hulu film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Daniels wants to tell the story of a vibrant and singular performer who is hounded for most of her professional life by FBI agents, on orders from top federal law enforcement officials — and all because Holiday insists on performing an anti-lynching dirge called “Strange Fruit.”

    As with any film based on real events, it helps to know your history.

    Did the FBI really try to end her career over a song?

    As I explored recently in a companion piece on Judas and the Black Messiah, J. Edgar Hoover was a piece of work. The FBI chief was a one-man wrecking ball of unchecked power and boundless paranoia. In the case of Billie Holiday, however, Hoover was merely an accessory. The G-men who ruined Holiday’s life had been put in the service of a U.S. Treasury Department known as the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. And that bureau was headed up by a man who was arguably responsible for putting more Americans in prison than anyone else in the 20th century and making the U.S. the global leader in mass incarceration. His name was Harry J. Anslinger.

    So who was Harry Anslinger?

    At age 25, Anslinger (1892-1975) began a string of assignments with foreign military and law enforcement agencies, helping them crack down on the global drug trade. By 1930, he had emerged as a leading candidate to head the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which President Hoover (no relation to J. Edgar) created in part to deal with the mess that Prohibition had become. The Volstead Act, which banned booze, had led to a culture of corruption. Cops were in cahoots with the rum-runners and gin joints and peeling off some of their mazuma. (Translation: Everyone was getting paid except the U.S. Treasury.)

    The upright Anslinger was brought in to play sheriff and given his own wide purview, which he promptly widened further. In this effort he relied heavily on the FBI and its director, who had a much larger force of agents at his disposal. While Hoover did not go out on dates with Anslinger, the two power-hungry G-men had a close working relationship that spanned more than three decades. Thanks to the FBI, the narcotics bureau greatly expanded the war on drugs and their efforts led to the creation of the modern DEA.

    How did Anslinger expand the war on drugs?

    Screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks penned The United States v. Billie Holiday largely off material in journalist Johann Hari’s 2015 book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. A key event in Hari’s timeline is Anslinger’s campaign to have marijuana added to the list of illegal drugs, based on evidence — which was later discredited — that smoking pot made people insane. It’s no laughing matter that the absurd propaganda film Reefer Madness came out in 1937, the same year Anslinger convinced Congress to pass legislation making marijuana a controlled a substance, alongside cocaine and heroin.

    “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” is just one of several jaw-dropping proclamations I found attributed to Anslinger. “When you go into his archives,” Hari told CBS News, “he claims that cannabis promotes interracial mixing.” By contrast, Hoover would justify his later intrusions into Martin Luther King’s life by noting that King and other civil rights leaders sometimes collaborated with Communists. But in the 1930s and ’40s, Anslinger could simply fall back on old-fashioned white supremacist talking points to win support for his crusades.

    The drug czar had a special animus for jazz. Anslinger hated its improvisational style and syncopated rhythms, which he associated with “the jungles in the dead of night.” He thought jazz was proof that reefer made you mad. As one internal memo put it, “many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marijuana but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.”

    In Billie Holiday, the feds had someone who not only was an abuser of marijuana, opioids and alcohol, but also one of the most powerful voices for equal protections for Black people, which offended Anslinger’s racial sensibilities. And the primary evidence for the latter was her insistence on performing “Strange Fruit,” a protest song written and composed by a white man, Abel Meerpool, in reaction to a photograph showing the lynching of two Black men in Indiana.

    A song, really? I thought Holiday’s drinking was what killed her.

    Officially, the cause of her death was cirrhosis of the liver, a classic sign of years of alcohol abuse. But Hari’s research offers convincing evidence that singing “Strange Fruit” — often at the end of a performance, with a spotlight on her and the room quiet and attentive, taking in every word — drove Harry Anslinger nuts, and made her personal destruction a goal of his. Declassified FBI files quote an agent inside the narcotics bureau (possibly Anslinger) as saying that “because of the importance of Holiday, it has been the policy of his bureau to discredit individuals of this caliber using narcotics.”

    The feds’ heavy-handed response to pot use vastly expanded the global war on drugs, which previously had been limited to cocaine and heroin. Millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens would be packed off to jail, in numbers that were disproportionate to people of color. This territory, so well covered in Netflix’s 13TH and its new follow-up Amend, are worth watching if you want to understand how a Black woman singing with freedom and power could get so deep under another man’s skin.

    The United States vs. Billie Holiday drops on Hulu February 26th.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: United States vs. Billie Holiday, Hulu