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5 Screenwriting Takeaways From 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

February 26, 2021
3 min read time

When did the War on Drugs begin? That’s the question author Johann Hari poses in his 2016 book, "Chasing the Scream". He argues that it begins in the 1930s, when a federal agent named Harry Anslinger joined the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

By the end of the 1930s, Anslinger had ramped up his fight against drugs by targeting minorities, focusing his racist attacks on Jazz musicians, including the famous singer Billie Holiday. He even threatened prosecution if she sang the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit".

Unlike the book though, The United States vs. Billie Holiday only loosely follows Anslinger’s (Garrett Hedlund) pursuit and fight against Holiday. The film is more about this tumultuous time in Billie Holiday’s (Andra Day) life as she falls victim to drug addiction and struggles with personal issues while simultaneously rising to become a civil rights icon.

Here are five takeaways screenwriters can learn from The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

1. Using an existing source

In 2016, Johann Hari wrote a book about the origins of the drug war in the United States and how it has impacted the world over the course of the past 100 years. One of the first chapters of this book centered on two people: Billie Holiday and Harry Anslinger.

With the exception of this early chapter, the only person consistently mentioned throughout the book is Anslinger, a federal officer whom Hari identifies as the one who started the War on Drugs and how he overwhelmingly targeted African Americans.

There are many ways in which someone could adapt Hari's book. It could be a limited series on any number of streaming platforms, or the basis of a documentary. However Suzan-Lori Parks' screenplay adaptation centers around Billie Holiday as the first public figure to be the focus of the War on Drugs, as well as the struggles she faced as a drug addict, being a voice for civil rights, and a past she can’t escape.

Most of the film's content therefore was not in the book, suggesting that a screenwriter can use a small part of a large story as the foundation for their screenplay. As writers read, they can often find characters and situations that spark their interest and they desire to learn more, and create stories of their own.

2. Introducing characters

At the beginning of the film, Holiday sits down with journalist Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan). The story Holiday starts to share with him is about singing at Café Society and Devine discusses the people involved in her past. Through this voice over conversation, we learn about all the characters within Holiday’s life and the roles they play.

This is a compelling way to fully introduce character via exposition. It makes sense for a journalist to confirm who these people are, and the viewer gets to meet them in a memorable way. The journalist angle to tell a celebrity's story has been frequently used in film, including Chaplin and most recently in It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

While Holiday's story unfolds to Devine, we also see a soldier enter the club. While he isn’t referenced, his presence shows his significance to the story.


3. Strange Fruit
Perhaps the most incredible scene in the movie is when Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit". For those unfamiliar with the song, it’s about coming across a lynching in the south. This song plays a prominent role in the movie in the context of the law. Not only is Anslinger trying to take down Holiday for her drug use, but they have forbidden her to sing this song in public; agents are even in place to arrest her if she tries.

We hear about this song with such frequency that we lean in and listen carefully when she does sing it. The choice the screenwriter makes is first presenting us with Holiday’s singing abilities, her position as a civil rights pioneer, and the government’s obsession about preventing the lyrics from being heard.

By the time she stands on stage and sings the haunting lyrics of "Strange Fruit" they are more powerful than if we had heard it earlier in the film.

4. Knocking down the heroes

The tragic events that happened in Billie Holiday’s life were true and a writer could use them to knock down the hero of the film. Just when we think she will catch a break, something happens to knock her down again. Whether it’s prison, drug abuse, or internal doubts, the character is always fighting, always struggling.

When writers create characters, we have a hard time putting them through hell. But watching the rises and falls is what viewers are there to see. The more the audience cares for them, the more the struggle is felt and can lead to a deeper emotional payoff.

5. What’s the movie?

This isn’t a question of what the story is, because in Billie Holiday’s biopic, there’s a lot missing. This is a question of the story of the movie. In "Chasing the Scream", Hari dives deep into Holiday’s turbulent childhood and the traumatic early life that led her to seek out drugs. This backstory is only briefly hinted at in the film. The United States vs. Billie Holiday isn’t the story of her life, it's a snapshot of it as we follow a small part of her career and while she's targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. 

Writers can get bogged down by the research and the need to tell the full story, and any screenwriter may have taken a look at Billie Holiday’s life and wanted to share the full span of it, similar to Ray or Walk the Line. What The United States vs Billie Holiday teaches screenwriters is to find the moment of someone’s life that best serves the film narrative. The movie didn’t avoid the early parts of Holiday’s life, but rather used it as the character’s backstory.

The United States vs Billie Holiday, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Lee Daniels, is now available to stream on Hulu.

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