The Drop is an ongoing series where Dani Janae and Shelli Nicole chat about Queer Black Pop Culture. Today they chat about the new film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday — now streaming on Hulu.
The opportunity to get deeper into the lives of our Black queer legends is usually few and far between. In 2020, Netflix released Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom starring Viola Davis as queer blues legend Ma Rainey. There were some moments in the film that highlighted her bisexuality but for the most part, its focus was on Chadwick Boseman’s character, Levee.
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday starring Andra Day as the jazz singer was meant to be a biopic that showed her life as well as the story surrounding her song “Strange Fruit.” The song became part of the soundtrack to the forthcoming Civil Rights Movement and made Holiday public enemy number one in the eyes of the FBI up until she took her last breath. Although its presence in the movie is limited, Billie Holiday was also a bisexual woman (the most notable relationship she had with a woman was with actress Tallulah Bankhead) and that was a large draw for queer folks who watched the trailer. Dani and Shelli chat through the film, its tragic and tender moments, and the queer erasure that is felt throughout.
Shelli Nicole: So I was thinking this time we would actually start a little backwards and I wanted to ask first, after watching the film — how did you feel about it overall?
Dani Janae: Oooo nice. So I think overall there were some moving moments, but the execution kind of left something to be desired. They really set it up as Billie Holiday vehemently defending her singing this song but I really felt it was an addiction narrative. So I was surprised by that. I always judge a film by whether or not I’d watch again — and for me? Once was enough.
Shelli Nicole: I will totally agree with you on that. I knew that her addiction would be part of the film but I had no clue it was going to encapsulate the movie in its entirety. I assumed from the trailer that we would have more of her story with the fight on the song, and although, yes, her addiction was part of that I just know there was so much more.
Despite Andra Day completely knocking it out of the fucking park with her portrayal of Billie Holiday, I don’t have much interest in watching it again. It feels like I’m watching trauma porn with one hell of a soundtrack.
Dani Janae: Oooo yes absolutely. I fully understand they have to paint a picture of the times, and deep racial trauma and pain were a part of those times, but I found myself wondering why we need another gut-wrenching Black story on film?
Shelli Nicole: It was… so much? I know that we should have been prepared, knowing that Lee Daniels was part of the project and he has a history of highlighting tragedy and pain in Black women but — I was still going in with optimism that maybe this time there would be a change?
I couldn’t bear so much of it. Holiday’s life wasn’t full of flowers and sweetness, I’m aware of that — but I feel like because of the trailer I got the rug pulled from under me when I got to see the film.
Dani Janae: Absolutely. As a filmmaker, you have the responsibility to paint a full picture but this was A LOT. The only moments of levity were her singing on stage but that was often tainted by the presence of the feds in the crowd or the brutal treatment by the men around her.
Shelli Nicole: I felt like there were quite literally just a handful of “happy” or “light” moments in the movie — which is so unfair. It’s two hours long and that just doesn’t add up for me.
Dani Janae: It really makes me question the decision to make this film, like did you want to tell her story or just put out two hours of straight suffering? Lee Daniels’ history makes me think the latter. I don’t mean to rag on the guy but I feel like taking on this project is a huge responsibility. While you can’t ignore her struggles you also can’t just breeze past the triumphs.
Andra Day was fucking perfect though, I was mesmerized.
Shelli Nicole: Andra was so entirely STUNNING. She said that she put herself through it to embody Billie and while I am always on the fence about folks going so deep into their roles and taking on method acting, the end result of her doing it was perfection.
Now onto what really upset me, the erasure of queerness.
We were whole ass promised in the trailer a kiss between her and Tallulah Bankhead (played by Natasha Lyonne) and it was nowhere to be found in the movie. Not only that but the scenes where they were together seemed to be thrown in? Maybe if they didn’t leave the queer ones on the cutting room floor they would have made sense but without them, it looked like they just wanted to utilize Natasha’s stardom and audience and bring them to the movie. They just seemed like filler.
Dani Janae: It felt a little like baiting. Like, we have seen just how starved queer audiences are for representation. And that when we do get some we show out. This felt like “let’s promise a kiss to rope in the gays” and then they just dropped it. It was hinted at that they were lovers but the scenes between them were so… stale. It looked like they were just acquaintances.
Shelli Nicole: I’m genuinely so sick of hints though. Especially when there is enough information out in the world about her queerness and their relationship to truly create an actual storyline between the two of them. That paired with the fact that those stories would cohesively fit into this story that he wanted to tell feels so wasteful.
Dani Janae: Totally. The relationship with her husbands and agent Fletcher were central to the plot, they could have absolutely fit in a proper scene with her and Tallulah.
Shelli Nicole: It’s just such a difficult thing to dissect too because so much of her life was filled with pain, but just like they got really creative with the fictional people and relationships they created – why not get that way with bringing in some beauty and sweetness as well?
Dani Janae: Couldn’t agree with you more.
Shelli Nicole: Did any scenes stand out to you that you just think really made the movie?
Dani Janae: I think the most memorable scene was her stumbling into a field and seeing the lynching and the scenes that followed. That shit almost pushed me to tears. But for me, there wasn’t really a scene that made the movie.
Shelli Nicole: That. Exactly that. For me it was the scene right before she stumbled onto the lynching, when Fletcher took a hit and went on that heavy and quick journey of her childhood. I hate that though, Dani — I wish there was something else that popped up into my mind when even asking that question.
I also want to make it clear that my issue with the film lays mostly in the story that it was telling and how it was handled but not at all in the performances because they were all killer. They showed up on set and did their job times a million.
Dani Janae: Yes, they really did the damn thing acting-wise in this movie. I also hate that, I wanted there to be something. I only finished the movie a couple of hours ago and even with that nothing is standing out in my head.
Shelli Nicole: I’m still gonna be actively optimistic that this won’t continue to keep happening in films when it comes to Blackness and queerness. This baiting and erasure shit is getting old really fast and I’d like to have a film end where I’m just maybe talking shit about the soundtrack and not the other stuff.
But of course, I always dig talking to you though — even when it’s about a film I was hype for but was disappointed by. I’m gonna go drown my sorrows in some light skinned Oreos.
Dani Janae: Lol seriously was so excited for this film and to hear your thoughts. I’m always glad to talk with you about anything.
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