When the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks was little and her parents put on Billie Holiday records, they often offered a vague editorial as accompaniment.
"They would say things like, 'They got to her' — but without any specifics,'" says Parks during a conversation about her script for "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," the new Lee Daniels-directed movie. "My dad was in the military, and as parents were very slow to criticize the government."
The drama, which premiered Friday on Hulu, is based on Holiday's yearslong battle with federal drug agents obsessed with both her heroin addiction and her star-making rendition of the harrowing ballad "Strange Fruit."
As Parks — best known for her plays "In the Blood" (1999), "Topdog/Underdog" (2001) and 2019's "White Noise" and her screenplay for Spike Lee's "Girl 6" — grew older, she began to understand what her parents meant by "they" and "got to her."
"I could see around me many Black American people whose excellence was rewarded with very harsh treatment by the government, or the system in Hollywood, or the theater system or whatever," Parks says. She added, "I did the math and realized, 'It must have had something to do with the status quo, you know? The powers that be must have had some hand in Billie Holiday's downfall.'"
"The United States vs. Billie Holiday" indicts the institutional racism that caused that downfall and does so through the story of a brilliant American artist whose "Strange Fruit," about a lynching in the South, remains as haunting today as when it was released more than 80 years ago.
Starring Andra Day as Holiday, the work is based on a chapter from "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs," a 2015 nonfiction book by Johann Hari. Called "The Black Hand," the chapter documents the real-life circumstances of, as Hari writes, "how Billie Holiday entered the drug war."
The chapter involves Harry Anslinger, who was a hard-charging drug enforcement agent in J. Edgar Hoover's FBI who Hari writes "did more than any other individual to create the drug world we now live in," and the ways in which he targeted Holiday. By the time Daniels' film begins, Holiday has already lived with the success of "Strange Fruit" for nearly a decade.
Told through Holiday's experiences as the most charismatic singer of her generation, who also happened to be addicted to heroin, the film addresses the ways in which Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) used both that addiction and a Black FBI agent named Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) as cudgels in his quest for power and prestige in the department.
"The core of the story was all on the table: 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' — not 'The Billie Holiday Story,'" Parks says. "Jimmy Fletcher is literally, actually an agent for the United States and she falls in love with him. To me, this is all about how we love this country and it dismisses us, and how for Black people, the fastest route to being an American is to throw someone of color under the bus. Whatever your race, actually."