Billie Holiday’s tragic legacy and bisexuality in life and on film

Billie Holiday has had a huge impact on U.S. culture. Why has her queerness so often been erased?

The United States vs. Billie Holiday profiles the legendary Blues singer throughout her career. Battling a heroin addiction and the federal government, Billie fell victim to misogynoir (misogyny directed at Black women) and the ailments of the U.S. Many people know her songs, especially the controversial “Strange Fruit,” but many have no idea how tumultuous and tragic her life really was. Her drug usage was no secret and neither was the fact that Billie was hunted down for her defiance as she would not stop singing her song to spread awareness about lynchings in the south. 

Based on the book Chasing the Scream by English Journalist Johann Hari and directed by Lee Daniels, a large portion of the movie focuses less on her artistic endeavors than her drug use and toxic relationships. How much the book was influenced by Holiday’s autobiography Lady Sings the Blues is questionable, but in this case, the film decides to look at the damage done by the federal government. At its best, the film is a testament to the issues of self medication while Black.  From lynchings, misogynoir, systemic racism and the like, the message “heavy is the head that wears the crown” rings true for Ms. Holiday. 

Image credit: Hulu

The Hulu film shows us that when Billie (Andra Day) is a young girl, she is bombarded with one traumatic experience after the next: forced into prostitution by her mother, raped at a young age, impoverished. Her early claim to fame was singing in dive bars and jazz clubs. After getting a record deal, she becomes the pivotal voice of jazz in the 30s and 40s. She also became addicted to heroin, her inevitable downfall. Her addiction was a form of coping from her traumatic childhood and the irony of being a popular figure and a second class citizen in the country she considered home. Being such a well known figure associated with the Civil Rights Movement catches the attention of the government. Add drugs to the mix and the plan sets itself right up. 

Billie is targeted by Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), a federal detective dedicated to “purging” the U.S. of drugs. He sends in Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), a Black federal agent looking to cement his place within the bureau. Jimmy is introduced as a soldier, looking to shower Billie with his praises. After solidifying information that Billie is indeed a heroin addict, the Bureau decides to make its move—and to silence her. To paint Billie out as a heroin addict was to discredit her from the public. Her rags-to-riches background in a racist society made her public enemy number one. 

Like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday came from working class stock and lived her life in a manner that was seen as deplorable by the masses. Her singing brought her riches, more so than Ma Rainey who paved the way for her. Comparatively, Billie was no richer than any Black musician in the day, but her prestige and personality made her larger than life. Despite the money and recognition, Billie retained who she was as a person, and this made the federal government quite nervous. Upon her creation of “Strange Fruit,” a song that was said to “incite riots,” the federal government developed an incessant plot to deplatform her in hopes of suppressing the truth about the lynchings happening in the South.

You might assume that people knew about the lynchings, but this was a time before social media. Newspapers rarely covered the murders, except for those created and run by well known abolitionists such as Ida B. Wells. Billie singing the song to majority white audiences forced them to reckon with the notion that Black people were being senselessly murdered just for existing. Billie was suddenly responsible for bringing protest to popular Black music, just as her predecessors. In addition to her bold, political stance, Billie did not have any concerns with the respectability politics forced upon her, due to her elevated class status. Though, in truth, she did have money, she was still a part of her caste. Her famed quote, “You can be up to your boobies in gardenias, no sugar cane for miles, and still work on a plantation” nods to her understanding of her place in the world as a Black woman—fame or not. 

Billie Holiday and Tallulah
Image credit: Hulu

While people have actively attempted erasure, Billie Holiday was a bisexual woman. Often she is idolized as a tragic, jilted girlfriend with no luck with men. But Billie found love often and it was often in the arms of women.  Billie Holiday engaged in notorious affairs with numerous men, including Jimmy Fletcher, who sent her to prison the first time for possession of heroin. She also had a close friendship and partnership with Talullah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), a white theatrical actress. With the exception of Bankhead, who truly cared for her, these relationships were toxic and filled with abuse and enabling her addition. Combined with the federal government’s efforts to emotionally sabotage Holiday, she began to spiral out of control. She was arrested multiple times, slandered by the press and began to trust no one—including those closest to her. 

Despite going to jail and getting clean the first time, the coping mechanisms that Holiday had developed had overtaken her. The men that she entertained in her life only made matters worse, showcasing the typical misogynoir Black women face within our own communities. For Holiday, heroin was the only thing in the world that didn’t judge her. Instead, it made her feel warm and protected—despite it killing her slowly. The drug ruined her close relationships with her bandmates, led her to lecherous professional relationships, and ultimately gave her cirrhosis, cutting her career short by decades.

It is not an understatement to declare that society is ultimately what took a toll on Billie’s physical and mental health. Mental health care was not as sophisticated as it is today and the beginning stages of the misdirected war on drugs only worsened the issue of Americans turning to drugs in order to solve their problems. Holiday was a survivor of rape, abuse, and neglect and therefore needed to be treated in a hospital—not put in a jail cell. To this day, drug users are still denied the proper treatment they need to reduce harm to themselves and others. Holiday serves as an example of what happens when drug users are criminalized instead of being seen as a victim of the ills of society. 

Though there have been numerous attempts to portray Billie as straight woman, the legacy she left behind finds itself in Black queer tradition.

While the film is not perfect in its depiction of the jazz singer, it bears witness to the ancestors who paved the way for multiple Black female artists to come. Even on her deathbed, Holiday remained defiant in her choice to not give in to the government’s harassment. No one believed her when she said that the problem wasn’t her drug usage, but instead her willingness to talk about the oppression and horrific occurrences Black people faced; Black women are often gaslit about their claims of racism and abuse.

Though Holiday was a celebrity, she was still a Black woman and this afforded her less grace than anyone else. People begged her to become compliant in order to live a life of peace, but despite her numerous attempts at sobriety, those that she considered to be lovers failed her time and time again. She was even a victim of failed frame-ups after kicking the habit on her own accord. Even if Billie had successfully become sober long term, the government never stopped making an example of her. She represented a new age of Black resistance in a country that refused to acknowledge its failure of protecting the Black community. 

Andra Day stuns as Billie, singing the original songs as herself. She captures the flair and street-wise slang that made Billie the charmer that she was. The film lacks any sort of explicit, sexual  queerness, but it is known that she had lived her life as a bisexual woman. This is not to say that there has to be explicit sex scenes in order to qualify, but it is important to remember not to erase one’s identity by making it a footnote.

Holiday’s bold and brash decision to live her life as she saw fit makes her an icon for Black women everywhere, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or class. Her refusal to throw down the sword made her a living legend in the eyes of the Black community and it is safe to assume that she will remain a powerhouse in the eyes of us all. Though there have been numerous attempts to portray Billie as straight woman, the legacy she left behind finds itself in Black queer tradition. Black queers have always been at the forefront of Black liberation and face the struggle of intercultural discrimination. To be neatly confined to a box of heteronormativity is destructive and Holiday should serve as a reminder as to why Black queers need validation in their lives as they fight for others. 

Black women are often looked to for strength in the face of adversity. But if we are not given the right to heal or express our trauma in ways that will not be held against us, there is no choice but to destroy ourselves. Billie did not have to die in such a tragic manner and no other Black woman should have to suffer the same fate. Believe Black women when we tell you that we are hurting. Support Black women who have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Make sure that Black women do not have to suffer the Blues anymore. 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday can be streamed on Hulu.

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