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The Academy vs. Billie Holiday

I don't remember the last time I watched the Academy Awards. Which is weird because I truly (madly, deeply!) love movies. You'd think I'd be more invested.

But I'm not. 

In recent years there's been a lot of hub-bub about a lack of diversity in the nominated films and artists. To which even I, someone who has only begun his journey toward woke-ness very recently, reply: Duh. Of course there is a lack of diversity. There are a hundred reasons why, and I don't care to go through even five of them now, but let's just agree among us girls that there has been really pitiable representation in creative output by, and for, non-white audiences up until now and it's past time we get better. Starting with actually consuming more diverse content, as I suggested in this earlier post

I try to walk my own walk whenever possible, and so I recently watched The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu with my family.

Holy shit.

Well, spoiler alert: this is a hard movie to watch. And I think every man, woman and child in America should watch it. 

When I was in middle school I remember having to watch Night and Fog, about the holocaust. The single image burned into my brain was a bulldozer pushing hundreds of withered, skeletal, primarily Jewish corpses into a mass grave. It made an impression. So yeah, I want everyone to watch this movie.


US v. Billie Holiday is a based-in-truth account of the Baltimore native who grew up in a brothel, survived physical and sexual abuse, and became one of the most internationally acclaimed American songstresses of her time, and all time. And if that was the capsule review you read on Netflix, you might think, "Cool! A feel-good Rocky story. Poor black girl overcomes the odds and realizes all her dreams." 

It's not that.

Even though this movie is based on a true story I don't want to give away too much. It's extraordinarily powerful, I'll say that. A gut-punch to anyone who has a human soul. To be clear: if you watch this movie and emerge unaffected you should immediately halve your dosage of anti-anxiety meds or - if you are as yet unmedicated - call 911 because you are likely already deceased. 

The premise of the movie is that Holiday is an outspoken critic - through her music as well as her life - of abhorrent, violent racism, the likes of which fanned the flames of countless crosses burned by the KKK. She is also a heroin addict. The law enforcement infrastructure of the country, under J. Edgar Hoover, who is never explicitly named or blamed, wants to subdue her civil rights activism but can't promote that as the reason. So they systematically victimize her based on her drug use, which is a defensible way to get what they want. We are witnessing the very birth of cancel culture, close to a century ago. 

One of Holiday's signature songs is Strange Fruit, a gruesome, haunting metaphor for a public lynching, the kind that was commonplace in the South. When she tries to perform it, egged on by her fans at a concert in Philadelphia, she is jailed. 

Hilarity does not ensue.

As I said, this is very hard to watch. In this movie the white folks are, almost without exception, the villains. There are black villains as well, to be sure. Like in any other phase of our planet's history, fascism and oppression cannot exist without appeasement. People within the victimized class become complicit, ostensibly to survive, and the effect of their quiet endorsement is reliable, effective and chilling. 

The movie opens with a stark image of a lynching, a group of good old boys standing over the body of a black man beaten to death - posing with the self-satisfied pride of a hunter or fisherman who just caught his white whale. The screen titles tell us that in 1937 an anti-lynching bill was introduced in Congress, and expired before it could be passed.

By the closing credits, though, we are told the United States Senate, in the year of our lord 2021, has yet to pass legislation specifically outlawing lynching. 

Have a nice day.


In any case, immediately after the movie premiered, actress Andra Day - in her first feature role, let alone lead - won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama for her portrayal of Holiday. "Well this is going to be crazy," I thought. "This movie's going to win every Oscar."

And so when the Oscar noms came out this week it was with a kind of horror that I noticed Day was indeed nominated for Best Actress; but that's all. The movie scored not. One. Additional. Nomination.

I'm confused.

Any other year one could raise the no-diversity banner, but today the nominees include an unprecedented number of men and women of color, as well as creative works that tell non-white stories, champion non-white protagonists. For example, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which - like Holiday - also recounts the black jazz experience in America, is up for five Oscar nominations.

Holiday has a mere 52 on Metacritic, compared to Rainey's 87. On Rotten Tomatoes, Holiday also scores 52, while Rainey scores an amazing 98.

Jesus, even Borat Subsequent Moviefilm scored an 85 on Rotten Tomatoes and TWO Academy Award nominations.

Now, I didn't see Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (I'll wait while you snicker. Are you done? Good.) but I'm sure it was fabulous. Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman? Come on, it had to be wonderful.

But I DID see The US vs. Billie Holiday and I consider myself a pretty savvy movie viewer. I even took a college course back in the day, and passed, thank you very much. And I'm telling you this was a powerful, amazing, life changing movie.

Or was it?


Clearly a lot of critical voices disagree with me. I'm not above calling bullshit on anyone for any reason, but when this movie is overshadowed by Borat 2 (which I did see) come award season, there has to be something I'm missing. What could it be? 

Andra Day performs all the songs herself, live, and they are as smoky and sultry and memorable as the originals - maybe more so, given their context within the story. Not one of these garners a "Best Song" nomination?

Trevante Rhodes plays Jimmy Fletcher, a black federal agent who starts off as a tool of the administration but sees his allegiance challenged the closer he gets to his prey. Any other year, this would easily be a Best Supporting Actor win, not just a nomination.

Not Best Adapted Screenplay? Really? And Lee Daniels, the director - nothing? I just don't get it. What am I missing?

There's never been a time in our history when this particular story, told this particular way, could be as powerful and relevant as it is today. After a year of BLM, George Floyd, Breyonna Taylor and the Georgia Senate Run-Off, it feels like we are finally in a place where we can have these introspective conversations with ourselves and each other. The historic accuracy, by all accounts, is damned solid compared to many biopics that have received way more acclaim. Can you say Bohemian Rhapsody? (Which WON four Oscars, by the way.)

So why isn't this movie...bigger?

I can only think of two reasons. I'm sure there are more, but I can only think of two.

One is industry politics. This was a feature film produced and aired on Hulu, a streaming service. It was helmed by a respected director but virtually everyone else was B-level or unproven prior to the film. There was no star power - no Viola Davis, no Chadwick Boseman - and no big-studio muscle. This could absolutely suppress the Academy's response to the film. But it wouldn't do anything to subdue fan and critical response. So that's out.

The second is, maybe it's not a great movie. Maybe it's just an important movie. And, I guess, they don't have to be the same thing. Maybe it feels like a great movie because of the subject matter and the timing and the raw nature of the portrayal. Maybe it feels like a great movie because of the outrage and sadness and bleak understanding that washes over you as the credits roll. Maybe it feels like a great movie because it's based on a true story and music we know; but it still makes us think, still engages us intellectually. 

Maybe it's just important, not necessarily good.

I keep going back to how I felt when I saw it, and the words I used in the beginning of this post: Gut-punch, hard to watch. Are these indicators of a good movie, or just a compelling topic? I tend to think a compelling topic, told clumsily, wouldn't yield the impact I experienced watching US v Billie Holiday. But I can't come up with an alternate rationale to explain the tepid-at-best recognition of the movie.


So here's my plan; let's see what you think. 

If you're reading this post, go watch the movie. If you don't have Hulu, well I don't know, find a friend who does. Maybe it's available as pay-per-view. Certainly, with ratings like these, it will be available on video shortly after the Oscars air in late April. Watch the movie. Don't include the kids unless the kids are 18+. There's nudity and sexual content but it's the documented emotional and psychological trauma that is more potentially damaging in my opinion.

So watch it. And let me know. If you agree with me it's a good movie, I will feel better. Whether you agree or not, you will see, at the very least, that it's an important movie. 

And that will be good, too. 


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