The whole time I watched Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday I thought, “Ignorance is bliss,” an adage to which I used to wholeheartedly subscribe. And now I know that after so many years of breathing (an accomplishment) in ignorance, there has been a high price to pay,
I don’t remember how I came to Lady Day. I know that it was not through my family. Billie Holiday, like the incomparable Nina Simone, was NEVER played in my childhood home.
I learned about Simone through some bizarre movie I watched when I was in my twenties about young waywards who were recruited by some agency to work on “the right side of the law.” One of the characters, a young woman, early twenties, in her perpetually depressed, although genius state, listened to Nina all the time. I was intrigued and looked up the woman who inspired such brooding brilliance. Of course, once I heard her and knew who she was I was hooked.
But then the question becomes for me, “Why did I have to wait until I was in my twenties and watching a crappy movie to find out about this amazing Black woman artist and activist?!
Instead of, or perhaps, alongside Depeche Mode, Nina Simone’s music should’ve been rolling off my tongue.
Later still, I learned about the high price that Nina paid for her activism. And I’m angry that the community she stood up for, risked her life for, abandoned her. I feel like I abandoned her.
Ignorance is not bliss; not in a country that works overtime to silence truth and the tellers of truth.
Knowing Ms. Simone’s music and her story would’ve done wonders for my sense of self as well as the possibilities that this body held while I grew like a wildflower in an open field of prickly weeds.
The same is true for my relationship with Ms. Holiday.
Somewhere along the way I heard “Strange Fruit,” but I was introduced to Billie through songs like “All of Me,” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.”
Such songs are fun to sing along with, but ultimately they’re disempowering to young black girls who don’t know what a healthy romantic relationship looks like.
Such songs seep into their subconscious and become their reality.
Unrequited love was the most I could hope for. On the other end was physical, mental, and spiritual abuse. None of these is acceptable.
It’s all of this unacceptability and the resulting destruction to one’s personhood are played out in Daniels’ film.
The film has been widely criticized, with one person writing “the direction and storytelling are laborious, without the panache and incorrectness of earlier Daniels movies such as Precious (2009) and The Paperboy (2012). A cloud of solemnity and reverence hangs over it, briefly dispelled by the music itself.”
WTF?? The woman was driven to drugs by the trauma of growing up a poor black girl in the United States. As a final f* you she is murdered in her hospital room as she lay dying—and there should be no “solemnity” or “reverence” for this woman who literally gave her life for the truth???!! Seriously??!!
Contrary to another critic who calls the film “forgettable” and “muddled” I was so haunted by the story that I barely slept the night I watched it. What some are reading is muddled is in fact, Daniels’ commitment to not letting the seemingly isolated story of someone who has been dismissed as a drug addict go uncontextualized.
The failure of the Senate to pass an anti-lynching law in 1937 has everything to do with the bill that is currently before the Senate. The black and white stills of yesteryear have everything to do with the disenfranchisement and disregard for black life that today we witness on cell phone video. For me, such critiques speak to white America’s desire to retreat to “innocence” in the way that James Baldwin thought about it. They have no desire to face the destruction they have wrought. But as Baldwin also said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The scene that reads much like a dream sequence speaks to the way that the violence to which black people are regularly subjected haunts not just our nightmares, but our waking lives.
What don’t people get? It’s really quite simple.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday should be seen and then as much about the woman’s life as possible should be researched. The same is true for Nina Simone (What Happened Miss Simone? And that new trash in which Zoe Saldana is cast should be avoided).
Check out Nina Simone’s tribute to Lorraine Hansberry: