I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know enough about my Black queer legends—but, in recent years, I’ve been trying like hell to rectify that. To fill in these gaps, I often turn to film, hoping that biopics and documentaries alike will not only introduce me to these icons, but tell the full truth of their lives—including the queer parts. But in many films, we often see these characters’ queerness being erased or minimized, making it seem as if the protagonist’s queerness was little more than an afterthought in the writer’s room, as if queer people can’t be Black, and as if Black people can’t be queer.. This seemed to be the case with The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which explores the phenomenal world of jazz legend Holiday, played by singer and actor Andra Day.
Day, who received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for this role, is stunning in her portrayal of the star.. As Day told Variety, “I put myself through it…I just asked [God] to give me her pain and give me her trauma.” One standout scene takes place when Holiday returns to the stage after serving her prison sentence: looking into an audience that included the man who put her there and shadily performing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” It is a telling moment in which Holiday is, in fact, doing what many Black women have done—doing her job and performing it perfectly while anger and battles are simmering inside you, but taking care to make sure no one is the wiser.
The film begins with a lighter tone, with playful memories and moments in Holiday’s life: Leslie Jordan uses his perky southern demeanor as gossip journalist Reginald Lord Devine to recount the first night he saw Holiday perform at the Café Society. She’s onstage singing with a smile, glowing and sweetly eyeing the actor Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) while narrator Reginald recalls how mesmerizing she was. This playful energy comes back later in the film when Billie and her band go on tour; her bandmates gently poke fun at one of her magazine interviews on the bus, and their raucous laughter fills the dressing room as they play cards and bond after performances.
These lighter moments are overwhelmed by the rest of the film, which quickly gets into familiar Lee Daniels territory. Daniels, who directed Precious (2009), The Butler (2013), and Empire (2015), has a history of highlighting characters and narrators who experience a steady stream of humiliation and abuse, and the director brings that same energy to Billie. The film, which is more than two hours long, focuses on how the controversial song “Strange Fruit” drew the FBI’s attention to her. While it offers moments of levity, its exploration of the difficulties she faced places the film squarely in the anxiety-producing space.The rare lightness makes an appearance in scenes with her band and chosen family, and oftentimes when she is on stage, but for me, the majority of the film is more of a slow, threatening, and melancholic burn.
Ultimately, it’s alright that The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a heavy film. It would have been inaccurate to paint Holiday’s life as a simple, happy one with minimal struggle. But it was disappointing that the heavy script gave little space to her bisexuality. We know that Billie had a relationship with Tallulah for several years and that they were close; it wasn’t a secret to anyone paying attention. In 1948, Billie performed with Count Basie and his orchestra for weeks at the Strand Theatre; after her own performance just down the way of the Broadway play, “Private Lives,” Tallulah would make her way to her special seat at the Strand just to watch Billie perform. The two were lovers and not often secretive about it; Tallulah even almost got Billie fired from the Strand Theatre because of the exhibitionist-style antics they would get into backstage. In the trailer, we see Billie and Tallulah at a jeweler where Day delivers my absolute favorite line: “I’m downright flashy, you know?” Then shortly after, we see them kiss. But both the line and the kiss are nowhere to be seen in the final cut of the film.
Something similar happened with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020). The official trailer didn’t explicitly visually suggest queerness as strongly as the trailer for The United States vs. Billie Holiday did. But clearly the producers knew that those familiar with blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her affinity for women would read into the subtext of her being surrounded by a bevy of hip-bumpin’ beauties, and the smirking stud glances she was giving to them. In just under 90 minutes, there are perhaps 10 minutes of clearly queer moments. Is that the best we can hope for?
In both films, the main character’s queerness is downplayed. When each film was being promoted, the queerness was used to draw in a bigger crowd. But when we arrive looking to cash in on what we were promised, the films only offer a dollop of dykeness hidden in subtext and placed on the back burner
When we arrive looking to cash in on what we were promised, the films only offer a dollop of dykeness hidden in subtext and placed on the back burner.
So while watching this film, I had to resort to doing what I have done for years, searching so that I could Frankenstein together pieces of the film that I could connect with on a queer level. In a film that centers on a bisexual woman, I didn’t think that was something I would have to (or should have to) do. I saw myself when Billie was on the floor, sitting between the legs of Roslyn (portrayed by the immaculate Da’Vine Joy Randolph of the gone-too-soon High Fidelity) as Roslyn did Billie’s hair. It’s a moment that feels true, as it illuminates the way that chosen family is something that queer folks so often have to create as a way to move through life and have one of fullness, rather than sadness and solitude. I even imagined myself sitting at a cabaret table, smoking a cigarette, and taking in the experience that I’m sure it was to watch Lady Day perform.
I ache for the day where I can watch a film and hold such a connection with the luminary on the screen that as the credits roll I can unequivocally feel seen, and feel confident that queerness has not been masked in favor of palatability. Some films do get it right: Bessie (2015) is an exceptional example of a film in this same genre that gets it right. Director Dee Rees, who is queer, showed blues singer Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) as an entire person and beautifully introduced her to those of us who weren’t familiar with the singer and her life. The film reveals her tragedies, recognizes her growth, and acknowledges her queerness as more than just a blip but as a major part of her life. She even managed to bring a dash of Ma Rainey’s story into the narrative to build out the world and did so without overcrowding the film. In Bessie, we’re granted two women who are part of Black queer history holding space and having their tales wonderfully told—all in less than two hours. In a 2015 article for Slate, Aisha Harris agrees, writing: “It’s a testament to Rees’s storytelling abilities that Bessie hits just the right amount of important milestones in Smith’s life while also weaving a compelling narrative out of her many relationships with her brother, her lovers, and Ma Rainey.”
Billie Holiday was a legend, an activist, and a rare talent—but she was also a queer Black woman. As someone who is obsessed with queerness in the realm of Black pop culture, and on the path to enlightening myself about those who were part of it, I believe that aspect of her life should be seen. With extensive proof of her bisexual history existing and readily available, why would it be so hard to blend that into the story that Daniels wanted to tell? My gut tells me that it’s not that it was difficult, it was that he deemed it unnecessary and not noteworthy (nor tragic) enough to include in detail. As an eternal optimist, I’ll continue to watch films to learn more about queer Black women icons but I’ll also continue to push for more. After all, with films such as Bessie building the slate, we know it’s possible for these stories to be properly told, and that perhaps the solution to getting more of the Black sapphic depth I desire is us just being hella deliberate in who we allow to tell them.