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This review was originally published on December 4, and is being republished for Black Writers Week. Her visage, an aperture into her troubled soul. All of the beauty and all of the misery.
A talented journalist who wrote a biography about the songstress 20 years after her gradual death, Kuehl dedicated a decade to interviewing the friends and artists who knew Holiday best. Before completing her work, Kuehl died suddenly in February Her book was never finished. Her tapes were never heard. These were the prevalent views from the s. Erskine lends new potency to the woman known as Lady Day by virtue of her performances.
Holiday, in her words, lived a hundred days in any single day. Her friends describe her in interviews as a sex machine who took part in relationships with women, men, and prostitutes. She just lived fast. Holiday possessed a sexual freedom that still feels revolutionary for women today.
Her dalliances with women were so well-known, onlookers referred to her as Mr. Billie Holiday. The total salacious portrait is enthralling at every turn.
By the age of 13, Holiday earned money as a sex worker, too. Her former pimp, Skinny Davenport, a name that sounds too on-the-nose for even Hollywood, casually recounts abusing Holiday. Even more vexing is the consensus of his opinion. A psychologist describes her as an impulse-driven psychopath. Memry Midgett, a black woman pianist, agreed that the singer wanted the punishment.
Their viewpoints are a complete misunderstanding of the extreme emotional trauma suffered by battered women that sometimes le to a cycle of violence. Other figures such as Pigmeat Markham and dancer Detroit Red recount the open drug-taking of the era. Markham explains how smoking reefer was so commonplace when Holiday performed at the Apollo that she came out to a cloud of smoke thick enough for a contact high.
In a different era, with greater understanding, she might have found help. Not just in matters of the heart, but political and racial, too. These hurdles, which Erskine smartly connects, are emblematic of the traps other black entertainers faced see Joe Louis and Ray Charles and to a point, with regards to fake allyship, they still face.
Kuehl was also drawn to the subject of appropriation. In some ways, Erskine, a white director, must also be aware of the connotations of him making a Holiday documentary. Both Kuehl and Erskine have the wherewithal to provide themselves cover by letting the voices of the black interviewees take center stage. Even so, Erskine includes a few too many splashes of Kuehl: From intimating a relationship between her and Count Basie, to a conspiracy theory surrounding her death.
And the interviews, with many figures like Charles Mingus and Count Bassie, who have long-since departed, retell the era in exciting detail. Reviews Billie.
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