THE UNITED STATES vs BILLIE HOLIDAY*CUT TO THE CHASE*
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Alex
Onscreen text tells that in 1937 an anti-lynching bill was considered by the Senate, but did not pass. Billie Holliday rose to fame in part due to her song “Strange Fruit”, about lynching. In New York City, 1957, Billie (Andra Day), accompanied by Freddy (Miss Lawrence) meets with radio journalist Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) for an interview. He asks her what it’s like to be a “colored woman”, and asks her about the trouble she keeps getting into because of “Strange Fruit”. Billie says it’s about human right, something the government often forgets.
Flashback to ten years earlier, when Billie is giving a performance. Among the attendees are soldier Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), Billie’s husband Monroe (Erik Leray Harvey), and manager Joe Glaser (Dusan Dukic). Roslyn (Da’vine Joy Randolph) and Monroe let fans in after to come meet Billie, but Monroe won’t let Jimmy in. Jimmy goes home to his mother, who is frustrated he’s living off his father’s trust. She criticizes him for going to jazz clubs but is impressed that he met Billie. Later, Glaser and Monroe, who have become chummy with agent Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), try to get Billie to cut “Strange Fruit” from her setlist, and she refuses. They say people high up in the government don’t want to hear her sing it, and Monroe threatens her physically. Lester Young (Tyler James Williams), her sax player, supports Billie in playing it.
Anslinger meets with other agents, where he says that Billie Holliday is a threat and her song is promoting the wrong ideas and she won’t stop singing it. Without the ability to arrest her for singing, they decide to go after her on drug charges. Billie and her lover Joe Guy (Melvin Gregg) do heroin together. At her next concert which is for servicemen, Billie performs with Louis Armstrong. Afterward, Jimmy goes to see Billie – he sees her drugs but doesn’t want any. He asks her about singing “Strange Fruit” and she says how important it is to her. The two take a liking to each other, but when he returns to see her next show, he sees it canceled due to death in the family – he discovers when he goes to the funeral that it was her dog.
Reginald asks Billie about Tallulah. Billie goes with Tallulah to her hotel, where she is not allowed on the elevator because she’s black. Tallulah offers to take the service elevator with her, but Billie leaves horrified. At her next performance, the people in the audience yell at her to play “Strange Fruit”. The manager orders her off the stage and the police charge, and Billie is hauled away by her band. Afterward, the FBI – including Jimmy, who it turns out is not a soldier but an agent – show at Joe’s and arrest them for the drugs. Billie feels betrayed and strips down in front of him daring him to search her. At court, the case is sieged by the media, who shame Billie. Anslinger congratulates Jimmy on his arrest. The judge shockingly sentences Billie to a year in jail – it turns out Anslinger paid off Joe, who told Billie she would be sent to a hospital.
At the FBI, everyone congratulates Jimmy, including Sam Williams (Evan Ross). Jimmy’s mother wants to know why this is what he’s doing given that he could do anything he wants. Jimmy says he’s one of the first black agents ever – but his mother tells him he’s helping them silence her because of her song. While Billie is in jail, Freddy asks Jimmy why he did it – Jimmy says his father told him drugs would destroy their community. Freddy tells Jimmy Billie was raped when she was ten and has been with abusive men, and she uses drugs to ease that deep pain inside. Anslinger has a meeting with Jimmy and tells him they need to make sure Billie never sings again. Jimmy questions why Billie is such a problem. Anslinger tells Jimmy to go to the prison and lie to Billie and apologize and get back in with her – he instead tells Billie not to trust anyone and warns her the FBI will continue to try to set her up.
Billie gets out of prison and meets with her team, who tell her they’ve booked Carnegie Hall, to her surprise. Billie tells Roslyn and Lester she’s going to stay clean. Two months later, Billie does the Carnegie Hall show to an adoring audience. Jimmy and Anslinger are in attendance. An audience member asks her to sing “Strange Fruit”, and she sadly declines. Billie’s performance goes well, but her new manager Ed tells her he hasn’t been able to get her cabaret card back yet so she can perform in clubs. She throws a bottle at him, and he accuses her of being high, which she says, of course, she is – she wanted to give her fans a show and the feds are sitting in the front row, and she won’t be able to work without the card.
Lester tells Billie to a club, where the John Levy (Tone Bell) tells her he’ll pay off the right people to make sure she can keep singing in his clubs. He hits on her, now that she’s divorced from Monroe, and she declines – but after the show, they have sex in her dressing room and he is quite rough with her. Sam Williams is in the audience for Billie’s performance. At work, Sam asks Jimmy if he wonders about what they’re doing. A few months pass and John continues shorting Billie on pay for her gigs. Tallulah is brought in by Anslinger and refuses to help him. He asks her if she’s sexually involved with Billie. Later, Tallulah tells Billie about it and tells her she can do better than John. Billie calls Joe and tries to score some drugs, but Joe says they should stay clean. She goes out and gets drugs on her own anyway.
When Billie comes to the club, John physically assaults her, hitting and kicking her for taking more of his money. She does more drugs, and Roslyn helps bandage her up so she can perform. More time passes, and Billie stays clean for a while. John proposes to her, then slips drugs into her pocket just in time for the feds to enter, clearly working with them. In court, Billie’s lawyer gets Jimmy to admit that Billie was possibly framed and she is freed. Anslinger, angry with Jimmy, sends him to follow Billie on her tour. In 1949, Jimmy comes to see Billie after a successful tour stop. He tells her the agency wants her to think he was fired. The whole crew is suspicious of him. In order to get him to prove he’s with them, they have Jimmy do heroin.
In a drug trip, he sees Billie as a young girl trying to find her mother working in a brothel. Her mother tells her she needs to make her own way and that she can go work as a sex worker if she chooses. Jimmy cries for her. Billie sees a man lynched, his child screaming for him. Jimmy watches her and chases after her as she sobs. Roslyn and Freddy come to comfort her, but she turns away and tries to get more drugs until Jimmy slaps them away. Billie goes out onstage and sings “Strange Fruit” in the south, defying the local klan. Anslinger is furious, and calls Jimmy and asks if she’s sure Billie hasn’t done drugs on the road. He says yes, but another agent is following him. Jimmy returns to his hotel room where he begins to have sex aggressively with Billie from behind, but stops and says he wants to do it facing her, passionate and loving.
As the tour continues, Jimmy and Billie begin falling deeply in love, and Jimmy becomes a part of the tour family, until one day, after the bus breaks down, Billie leaves with suitcases and tells Jimmy he needs to find a nice girl and that isn’t her. She says she’s used to a certain kind of love that makes her feel safe, and what she has with him scares her since she’s not in control. Louis McKay (Rob Morgan) arrives to take Billie to the next gig and kisses her. The whole crew is angry with Billie for leaving them stranded, and Jimmy is heartbroken. He returns to work, where Sam tells him he’s been moved over to administration and Sam has been given his assignment. Jimmy says the drug war is just a war on black people.
Later, Billie is married to Louis and still working, though their marriage is violent as well and full of drug use. The police once again catch them using and try to send them to jail, but they escape jail time. Anslinger meets with Louis and tells him to plant heroin on Billie. They imply Billie is the one running the show and try to emasculate him. Jimmy comes to a show and comes backstage and kisses Billie – Louis walks in and the two have a physical fight. Louis tells Jimmy “he can have the bitch”. Reginald asks Billie about her marriage, and she says they’re separated. Reginald asks her why the government is always after her, and she tells him her song “Strange Fruit” reminds them that they’re killing black people. She says the government wants the names of her suppliers, but really they want to destroy her. Reginald asks her why she doesn’t just stop singing the song.
In a recording session, Billie is out of it. She begins having problems performing, her drug addiction overrunning her. Later, Billie tells Jimmy that she has liver failure. She goes into the hospital and Billie stays with her. Anslinger confronts Jimmy and warns him not to obstruct them. Jimmy says they hate her because they can’t take that she’s strong, beautiful, and black. Louis comes into the hospital and attacks Jimmy. Sam comes to get Jimmy out before Anslinger arrives. Outside, Jimmy sees Roslyn, who cries that if they take Billie off methadone she will die of withdrawal. Sam tells Jimmy Anslinger is going to plant heroin on her.
Anslinger sits down with Billie and Louis, and Louis says Billie is ready to help. Anslinger says if she cooperates she’ll never see them again. Billie tells him his grandkids will be singing “Strange Fruit”. She says they think they have something on her, but they don’t and tells him “suck my black ass”, and laughs.
Post-script says that on July 17, 1959, Billie died at 44. Narcotics agents, claiming to have found heroin, arrested her as she was dying. Jimmy is shown sobbing. Anslinger remained drug commissioner until his retirement at 70 and was given commendations. Jimmy regretted his actions working for Anslinger until the day he died. In 1978, “Strange Fruit” was inducted into the Grammy hall of fame, where it was named song of the century. In February 2020, the Emmett Till anti-lynching act was considered by the senate – it has yet to pass.
One of Billie Holliday's (Andra Day) most popular songs, "Strange Fruit", is about the horrors of lynching committed on black people. The FBI, led by Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), want to stop her from singing it as they believe it to be inciting to the wrong kind of people. They put pressure on her to stop singing it, and when she refuses, they send an undercover agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to bust Billie, who is a heroin addict, and send her to jail for a year.
When she gets out of prison, the FBI begins planting drugs on her in attempt to frame her and send her back to prison. She manages to avoid going back to prison with help from Jimmy, who regretted what he's done and has seen the FBI's "war on drugs" as primarily racially motivated. Jimmy is sent to tail Billie on tour but tells her the truth, and the two fall in love, even though Billie eventually marries another man, she separates from him and stays with Jimmy. Billie's drug problems worsen and she eventually begins dying. Anslinger comes to see her and tells her that if she cooperates they'll leave her alone - she tells him his grandchildren will be singing "Strange Fruit".
Post-script reveals that the FBI claiming to have found heroin on her, arrested her as she died in the hospital. "Strange Fruit" was inducted into the Grammy hall of fame, where it was named song of the century.