Hollywood’s Obsession with Rewriting History
A recent biopic of famed jazz singer Billie Holiday represents Hollywood's latest attempt to change history.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a recently released biopic based on the famed cabaret singer’s trials and tribulations, is not at all out of place in the contemporary political climate and the entertainment industry’s resurgent interest in civil rights. The film, though criticized for its fragmented storytelling, is nonetheless remarkable as it recounts the dazzling yet turbulent life and career of a legendary American musician.
One should be alarmed, however, by a particular scene in which a group of prominent historical figures, all known for their virulent anti-communism, congregate in a smoke-filled boardroom to conspire to take down Billie Holiday. The scene in question opens with Agent Harry Anslinger taking long, assured strides down the corridor of the U.S. Capitol, as the subtitles set the date at April 3, 1947. He enters senator’s chambers in which a group of white, middle-aged congressmen lounge and banter with whiskey and cigarettes in hand. Senator Joseph McCarthy, his chief counsel Roy Cohn, Congressman J. Parnell Thomas, and John E. Rankin are among the men present. A conversation ensues, in which the sophistical correlations between jazz, drugs, race, and civil rights are explored with unabashed use of the n-word, as the men attempt to establish grounds for the arrest of Billie Holiday, who the men consider to be representative of jazz. Eventually, it is youthful Roy Cohn who suggests that they have Holiday arrested on drug charges, and the scene ends with Congressman J. P. Thomas giving the determined-looking Anslinger the green light to “go after” Holiday, as sinister, suspenseful music swells.
The scene itself seems plausible at first glance, given the long-standing mutual distrust and suspicion between anti-communists and civil rights activists. The only problem is that it did not and could not have happened. Upon considering the actual whereabouts in 1947 of this cast of characters, one realizes how absurd and glaringly inaccurate this depiction is. In 1947, Senator Joseph McCarthy had just been elected to the Senate, and had yet to declare his crusade against communism with his notable Wheeling speech; in 1947, Roy Cohn had just graduated from Columbia Law School at age 19, more than a year shy from eligibility for admission to the bar. Evidently, it is not historically probable for either man to have been involved with Billie Holiday’s case or, for that matter, been associated with each other in 1947. While both Congressman John E. Rankin and J. Parnell Thomas of House Un-American Activities Committee infamy had been active in the anti-communist movement in 1947, neither had any observable or documented involvement in Billie Holiday’s case. The only person not misplaced at the scene in question was the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, who had in fact targeted jazz musicians and orchestrated Billie Holiday’s arrest. Among the four misplaced characters, only Congressman Rankin, a Southern Democrat, took a public stance against civil rights legislation.
Of course, historical facts cannot come in the way of the director’s grandiose plan to assemble the most inglorious troupe of villains possible to persecute the martyred Billie Holiday. Whether creative media ought to have any ethical obligation to stick closely to the truth and refrain from producing potentially slanderous fabrications remains debatable. However, to refurbish history with colorful details in fictional representation such as movies—whether in the service of their artistic value, entertainment value, box office revenue, or even a certain agenda—is one thing. It is quite another thing to intentionally misplace well-known historical figures in other scenarios of historical infamy and fabricate baseless tales of their involvement.
Although feature films about otherwise obscure characters are often embellished and glamorized, a biopic depicting the already eventful life of Billie Holiday, one of jazz music’s most iconic and renowned performers, would scarcely require any distortion of history to be rendered absorbing. While excessive restrictions often impede the excellence of creative art, the general public is rarely knowledgeable enough about history and shrewd enough in their judgement to identify falsehoods in the visual entertainment they consume. Streamed on Hulu, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a major production, which, as of the end of its premier weekend, had boasted an audience of 187,000 households. Many of those viewers must have closed their web browsers or turned off their televisions believing Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn actively conspired to persecute Holiday for her role in the budding civil rights movement.
Perhaps, had we lived in a world where citizens were uniformly well-equipped to ferret out falsehoods in films, or were generally dispassionate about popular culture, historical inaccuracies in movies would not need to be of much concern to anyone. The harsh reality, however, is that film and television remain two of the most influential media for the dissemination of information in America today, and the average American is far more likely to watch this biopic than to read a biography of Billie Holiday. One also has reason to believe the filmmakers had specifically chosen to target figures’ whose reputations, or whatever is left of them, have long been irredeemably tarnished. For who would think of doubting that the chairman of the HUAC, which persecuted the Hollywood Ten, happened also to have persecuted Billie Holiday? Who, among those who could identify the falsehoods, would have found it advisable to run the risk of appearing to defend McCarthy by publicly pointing that out?
This brings us to the major question: What does this case of historical revisionism accomplish? It appears to reinforce the now rather mainstream notion of intersectionality. Intersectionality is a concept encompassing how a person’s different social identities—such as gender, race and sexuality—converge in one’s individuality and factor into the degree to which one is privileged or oppressed. Billie Holiday, the star of the film, is black, female, bisexual, and raised in poverty. A proponent of the theory of intersectionality is likely to consider her among the most oppressed and unduly burdened individuals in 1940s American society.
Right-wing, white, male figures, on the other hand, are considered the most privileged individuals under the intersectionality framework. By casting these men as the villains and oppressors of this story in spite of their lack of actual involvement or connection to the martyred victim, the filmmakers are not only miseducating the audience in pseudohistory, but also delivering a covert message: that those on the right are a monolithic group of evil conspirators that are always trying to take down racial minorities, sexual minorities, civil rights activists, communists, and any historically oppressed groups alike. It does not matter that Joseph McCarthy’s and J. Parnell Thomas’s chief issue had always been communism, for “villains” do all evil; exactly what evils they did and did not do is irrelevant. In these filmmakers’ eyes, because McCarthy investigated communists so fervently, he must also have had an equally fervent desire to demean and purge civil rights activists.
The theory of intersectionality discreetly promoted in this film centers on the idea that, because the right persecutes all oppressed groups, members of these subordinated groups must band together in resistance. The truth is irrelevant. Through blatantly fabricating an improbable, wholly fictitious scene as a representation of history, the filmmakers are importing intersectionality into history and forging a rigid, black-and-white worldview in which not only are the oppressors made interchangeable, but so are the oppressed.
Ultimately, what one might find alarming is not that Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn have been slandered yet again, or that the well-compensated screenwriters have not bothered to do their research, but, rather, that another effort of Hollywood’s to rewrite history has largely gone undetected. It may not seem important that a good number of Americans probably now believes Joe McCarthy did one more wrong on top of a long list, but as lies accumulate one after another, so the epic rewriting of history continues.
Ingrid Chung is a student studying Politics and History based in New York City. She is on Twitter @TheIngridChung.