Legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday had the odds stacked against her when she was alive. Her story is being told in Hulu’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday with Andra Day taking on the titular role. There is much to learn from the film and life of Billie Holiday, and one cast member thinks the movie should be shown in every classroom.
Being a Black artist was hard enough during the time Billie Holiday rose to fame, but she was also a drug addict lacking the proper resources and care to get well. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, had a heavy hand in Billie Holiday’s prison time due to personal bias he held against her. I sat down with Garrett Hedlund, who portrays Anslinger in the film, for an interview with CinemaBlend, and he shared why he thinks The United States vs. Billie Holiday is such an important educational piece:
I love nothing more than somebody standing by their art, standing by their past, and standing by their pain. Something that's gonna inspire, make a difference and transform a new America. [Billie Holiday] was doing just that. And when she refused to stop singing it, and it was a big middle finger to the way she was being treated. The government maliciously using her as an example because she was an addict because she wouldn't stop singing Strange Fruit.
My character, Harry Anslinger, felt that it was stirring up America in the wrong way. And it made him uncomfortable because he was so insecure and had his own qualms with it and his place in his profession, you know, he wanted none of it. So it showed how selfish she was. He always had ulterior motives in his career and it was very malicious what he was doing to Billie when other white artists that were heroin addicts, specifically, were sent to doctors, and he had her sent to prison to detox. He took her cabaret license from her so she could never perform publicly after that. She faced a lot of immense brutality and that's why this film is such an educational experience when you're watching it. I think it should be shown in every classroom for history, for music, and others can learn as much as we have while making this film.
As Garret Hedlund said, even the cast learned a lot while making The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Whether it’s about addiction, the music industry, different sectors of the government and how they are operated, or trust and bias between humans, this film has something to teach about all of it. It is just as entertaining as it is informative because the audience takes a journey with Billie Holiday as she navigates who she can and can’t trust through different stages of her life.