Lee Daniels’ bland, stilted, TV-movie treatment of the final years in the life of jazz singing legend Billie Holiday, imprisoned on a drugs charge and officially harassed long after her release, is fatally compromised by its own misjudged and obtuse romantic fantasy. The film rhapsodises that, after a lifetime of abuse from men, and a persistent campaign of victimisation from federal agents enraged by her courageous anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, Holiday’s emotional life was redeemed by a gallant, secret love affair with an undercover federal agent called Jimmy Fletcher; that is, someone working for the very people who had been making her life a misery.
Holiday is played by singer Andra Day and Fletcher by Trevante Rhodes; Garrett Hedlund plays Harry Anslinger, the tight-lipped racist chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Fletcher was one of the African American agents employed by Anslinger after the second world war to infiltrate jazz clubs to root out drug use – and to make drugs the pretext for clamping down on black political culture. Until recently, Fletcher had been considered a real-life but minor figure in Holiday’s life: he hung around the fringes of the jazz scene, befriended Holiday and finally to her fury actually arrested her. He later told Holiday’s would-be biographer, Linda Kuehl, in a taped interview in the 1970s that he always regretted the betrayal, that she had forgiven him and affectionately inscribed a copy of her autobiography for him.
After Kuehl’s death in 1978, itself an odd footnote to Holiday’s life recently investigated by documentary-maker James Erskine, various biographers made use of her audiotapes without paying much attention to Fletcher. But in 2015, British journalist Johann Hari published a book about drug legislation called Chasing the Scream, with a section about the drug war on Billie Holiday that that this movie is based on. In it, 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 odd about elevating this imagined love affair to an accepted part of her life, with sensitive G-man dreamboat Fletcher supportively hanging around, following her on tour, and finally entrancing Billie with his gentle and considerate love-making with Billie not minding that he is still working for the Feds. That is especially so when, in real life, Billie Holiday’s magnificent courage and defiance took place in spite of men and their reactionary bullying.
The film only really comes to life when Day sings Holiday’s songs, such as Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, with its poignant and shocking lyrics about abuse: “I’d rather my man would hit me / Than jump right up and quit me.” It’s conceivable that the film is suggesting that the tragic dysfunction of accepting domestic violence as the price for love is comparable to Fletcher’s own presumed crisis of loyalty and self-respect. But in the film, Fletcher doesn’t seem to be troubled by that much of a crisis. Even when he takes heroin with Holiday to show a kind of solidarity, the ensuing traumatised flashback is in Holiday’s mind, not his, back to her own brutal upbringing of violence and rape.
Then there is the main event itself: the remarkable Strange Fruit, a radical, confrontational protest song that was for decades the only public acknowledgment in mainstream American culture that lynching existed at all. Understandably, screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks waits until the third act before it is performed in full. Day’s rendition is heartfelt. But the direction and storytelling are laborious, without the panache and incorrectness of earlier Daniels movies such as Precious (2008) and The Paperboy (2012). A cloud of solemnity and reverence hangs over it, briefly dispelled by the music itself.
• Released on 27 February on Sky Cinema.