Spate of awards-season films track FBI tactics against Black activists

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Chris Vognar
·7 min read
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**FOR ENVELOPE FASHION STORY RUNNING 2/2021*****Billie Holiday (Andra Day) in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday". Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, spent much of her career being adored by fans across the globe. Beginning in the 1940's in New York City, the federal government targeted Holiday in a growing effort to escalate and racialize the war on drugs, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial and heart-wrenching ballad, "Strange Fruit." Billie Holiday (Andra Day), shown. (Photo by: Takashi Seida/Hulu)
Andra Day plays internationally acclaimed jazz singer Billie Holiday, targeted by the FBI in the 1930s and '40s, in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday." (Takashi Seida / Hulu)

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a peaceful movement for racial justice. Fred Hampton was a self-described revolutionary. Billie Holiday? She sang a song the government just didn’t like.

All were targeted by federal government investigations; all ended up dead. And now they’re all subjects of new movies, a sort of surveillance trilogy about what happens when the feds decide to destroy Black leaders. The documentary “MLK/FBI” and the dramas “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” all have garnered awards buzz this season, especially for Andra Day as Holiday and Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton. And the events they depict remain relevant today, as the federal government keeps an eye on a new generation of Black activists.

Via wire-tapping, undercover agents and even assassination, King, Hampton and Holiday were followed and harassed by government agencies, especially the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, a known racist obsessed with sexual deviance. Of course, such tactics clearly go beyond Hoover, who died in 1972 after leading the FBI for nearly five decades. But there’s no underestimating his role in the bureau’s surveillance of Black leaders.

By the time jazz singer Billie Holiday made her mark in the late ‘30s, singing the haunting lynching lament “Strange Fruit,” such investigations were commonplace. The government saw the song, with its evocations of Black bodies swinging from trees, as dangerous and un-American. Harry Anslinger, director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was particularly outraged, as Johann Hari writes in his book “Chasing the Scream,” on which the Holiday movie is based. A sort of mini-Hoover, he saw the singer's heroin addiction as a means of destroying her and putting that song to rest. She remained defiant to the end.

“She was a Black woman who dared to give the powers that be the finger,” says “Billie Holiday“ screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her play “Topdog/Underdog.” Her team “told her, ‘Don't sing "Strange Fruit," gal, because it's going to get you in a heap of trouble.’ She's, like, ‘I'm going to sing what I want.’”

According to the Hari book, Anslinger, played in the film by Garrett Hedlund, grew obsessed with jazz musicians in general and Holiday in particular. He hated the pride with which she carried herself and her glamorous clothing. Mostly, he hated the color of her skin. Her husband (and sometimes pimp) Louis McKay conspired with Anslinger to set her up on drug charges, and she did a year in prison. When she got out, Anslinger made sure she couldn’t get her cabaret performer’s license back. ”This meant she wasn’t allowed to sing anywhere that alcohol was served, which included all the jazz clubs in the United States,” Hari writes.

Andra Day lounges in a chair in a scene from "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."
Andra Day as Billie Holiday in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday." (Photo Credit: Takashi Seida)

As Holiday lay dying of cirrhosis, Anslinger had her set up for drugs one more time. She was handcuffed to her New York hospital bed, where she died at age 44. “For her,” Anslinger wrote in his book "The Protectors: Our Battle Against the Crime Gangs," “there would be no ‘Good Morning Heartache.'”

A major player in the film, and in Holiday’s life, was a federal agent named Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes). As Hari writes, “His job was to bust his own people.” His job was not to fall in love with Holiday, but that’s what happened, even after he had set her up.

“He's torn,” Parks says. “He wants to be a good American. He wants to rise in the ranks. And yet rising in the ranks means he's going to have to betray someone in his community, someone who is wonderful and who his mother respects and his friends adore, who audiences all over the world love. That's often a situation where people of color find themselves: Where does your allegiance lie?”

Daniel Kaluuya at left and LaKeith Stanfield behind the wheel of a car in a scene from "Judas and the Black Messiah."
Daniel Kaluuya stars as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield (behind the wheel) as the FBI informant who betrays him. (Glen Wilson)

Fletcher has a parallel of sorts in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” His name is William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), a petty thief who gets busted impersonating an FBI agent. A real agent (played by Jesse Plemons) makes O’Neal a deal: no prison time if he infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and provides intelligence on Fred Hampton, the chapter’s young, charismatic chairman.

Hampton was a teenager when he crossed Hoover’s radar. “Even in high school, he demonstrated a real ability to unify and organize across races,” says “Black Messiah” director Shaka King. “That was always Hoover’s biggest fear.” Indeed, Hoover wrote of his desire to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.” Hampton fit the bill. His impact was resonating far beyond his Chicago base. And the Black Panthers, often armed to the teeth, scared the powers that be.

The shocking part of the Hampton saga is the brutal extremes to which the FBI and Chicago Police Department went in order to silence Hampton. O’Neal provided the FBI with a blueprint of Hampton’s apartment. On the morning of Dec. 4, 1969, Hampton, 21, was shot and killed in his bed by Chicago police along with fellow Panther Mark Clark. The police fired upward of 99 shots. The Panthers fired one.

The Rev. Martin Luther King in a scene from Sam Pollard's "MLK/FBI."
The Rev. Martin Luther King in a scene from Sam Pollard's "MLK/FBI." (IFC Films)

King, more than anyone else, fit Hoover’s fear of a Black messiah. According to the book "The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From 'Solo' to Memphis," by David J. Garrow, the FBI initially sought intelligence on King’s friend and advisor, Stanley Levison, who had Communist ties. Then the bureau’s wiretaps and phone bugs revealed something else: King was unfaithful to his wife, Coretta Scott King. Surely, this information could be used to discredit King among his loyal followers. The bureau even trumped up an anonymous letter and sent it to Coretta, attacking King’s character and suggesting he commit suicide, according to the Garrow book.

But the FBI's nonstop surveillance of King raises deeper questions.

“I can't believe that the FBI, with the constant surveillance of King, could not be aware of possible people and organizations who were out there to assassinate him,” says “MLK/FBI” director Sam Pollard. “I just can't believe that they would be that stupid to not be aware of those things. I think there's probably somewhere in some vault a cache of letters or audio or even film that may give us some insight into what really happened to King that day, April 4, 1968, or what led to it.”

“Black Messiah” director King points out that federal agencies haven't spied only on Black people. They followed César Chávez and infiltrated the United Farm Workers. They waged covert war on the American Indian Movement. And, of course, anyone remotely connected to the Communist Party could expect Hoover’s attention.

But it seems there’s something about the country’s racist roots that leads to federal harassment of Black leaders.

“Now they do surveillance on Black Lives Matters,” King says. “You talk to any Black radicals doing direct action on the ground and they will tell you that this movie speaks to their experience in 2021. They're being harassed and imprisoned. It’s the whole gamut.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.