Billie James Erskine (USA; 2019; Doc) Based on research of Linda Kuehl
viewed: Everyman Cinema Newcastle, 3rd Nov 2020; ticket £12.50
white lives matter
I found it disconcerting that James Erskine the white director of this biographical documentary about Billy Holiday should chose to embed within ‘Billie’ the story of the white journalist who provided much of the material that comprised his film. Whilst Billie Holiday’s story is painfully and uncompromisingly black Erskine’s movie feels skewed towards a white audience, empathically loaded as it is by the framing presence of its white female researcher.
Linda Kuehl a New York writer and journalist spent the last 5 years of her life interviewing and gathering material for a biography of Holiday. She died 1978 in Washington DC. She fell from the window of her hotel in circumstances that were never cleared up to the satisfaction of her family, who inherited her trove of research.
My feeling about biographers is that, as for the most part their writing pitches their subjects into the foreground of public awareness, that they should choose to take their place in the background. They shouldn’t really compete with what they are writing about. There are good ethical reasons for this in relation to this type of authorship which to a greater or lesser extent comprises a calculated exploitation of another’s life and life facts. If the subject is the motivating energising influence for the writing, then a level of humility in relation to them is appropriate. Linda Kuehl as far as we are informed by Erskine always stressed the primacy of Billie’s life in relation to her work. The importance she attached to the documenting of Billie’s life was to try and understand her as a being and in relation to the social-cultural milieu in which she lived and worked. Linda attached importance not to herself, but to Billie. Whether Linda was or would have been able to grasp the actuality of her subject’s life as black and female is unclear from Erskine’s script.
Erskine’s movie frames Billie’s life and death around Linda’s life and death. The film opens and closes with Linda and a parellel editing structure is used as Erskine cuts between the lives of the two women. Billie to be sure gets the most screen time, but the way that Erskine manipulates his editing schema results in the two women vieing for the interest and attention of the audience. The intercutting is given pretext and substance by a number of observations voiced in the film that Linda’s life and circumstances might lay claim some sort of equivalence with that of Billie. Her status as a Jewish woman is cited as an example that Linda like Billie ‘experienced’ discrimination. As if, being a Jewish woman in Brooklyn or New York in the 1960’s and 70’s was a comparable discrimination to the experience of being a Black female performer on the road in the USA. Linda’s problems with men was cited, it was said that like Billie she had consistently chosen the ‘wrong’ type of guy. Fellah trouble! As if Billie’s life, a child prostitute in Atlanta and New York from the age of ten, a damaged soul, victim of vicious segregation and ripped apart by need for black male torment and heroism, can really in any way be compared with Linda’s relationship problems. This is not to belittle Linda’s unhappy experiences with men, only to say they are on a different page to that of her subject. The two women lived different psychic realities, which Linda readily understood, and I think she may have been upset by the way in which her life has been exploited in this movie.
I have these questions in relation to ‘Billie’: did Linda Kuehl’s family or whoever it is now that holds the license for her estate, insist, as part of the license deal that Linda Kuehl’s story should feature prominently in the script? The family, and it is mainly her sister who is appears, provided plenty of 8mm home movie footage of her (used rather repetitiously) to bulk out the film, so they obviously at least to some extent approved its form and structure. If not the family, was it Erskine who wanted to structure the film around Kuehl’s story, feeling the story within a story was a neat formulaic solution to the film’s shape, even at a cost to the films integrity?
Just questions but as I viewed the film I would have liked to know the answers because ‘Billie’ is a terrible film. In this documentary Erskine is completely unable to give Billie Holiday’s performances the respect she deserves. There is not one number featured in the film (they are all drawn from the archives of her performing) that she is allowed to complete in picture. I think the point about Holiday is that she expressed herself her race her femininity when she sang. The singing is quintessential to her being. Yet right in the middle of ‘Strange Fruit’, which Billie depicts as much as sings, so that in her performance everything is seen, Erskine cuts away from the power of her presence to throw us some litteralistic visual giblets: graphics of lynching’s, faces whatever. To cut away from the visceral power of Billie’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is an act of dereliction, an abandonment of Erskine’s subject. And Erskine does it not just once but each time Holiday performs. Abandonment of Billie Holiday, is that Kuehl?
The cutting pace of ‘Billie’ resembles a manic pop video with any shot longer than 5 seconds regarded as slowing down the pace. Erskine’s relentless splicing diminishes Holiday’s monumental presence which demands a subdued pace to assimilate. In putting his film together Erskine has abandoned imagination and opted for mechanical simplistic solutions to the problems posed by his material. The film has a lot of audio material from Kuehl’s archive. But to cover the hole in the picture Erskine has resort the repeated use of the same visual cliché: the tape recorder, either reel to reel or cassette. Erskine has nothing more to offer than clunk of the switch and the whirl of the spools, then lay the voice over. It feels like he can’t be bothered to try and develop any other idea of how to handle the voices: no pic cut to machine. He’s unable to work his way out of this tired repetitive trope. This is dead end stuff that stands in representation of an artist who was truly alive.
Nearly all documentaries carry within themselves seeds of relevance to their subjects. Even when poorly conceived and made, they can retain at least a modicum of interest for the viewer. And this is still the case with ‘Billie’, even though the film leaves something of a bitter taste that even so long after Holiday’s death, it is still Whites who are framing her story.