In Lee Daniels’s Billie Holiday biopic “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the singer’s trials and tribulations during the 1940s are reflected through the film’s clear main villain, Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry J. Anslinger.
Anslinger, portrayed in the film by James Hedlund, is depicted as a racist, crusading fanatic who used his office and his proximity to power to ruthlessly harass Holiday throughout her career.
For example, Anslinger calls multiple meetings between the FBI and FBN about Holiday, and even says at one point he wants to “bring that bitch down.” He loses his mind over Holliday’s “Strange Fruit,” claiming that the song about the epidemic of lynchings against Black Americans would “start riots.” He personally arrests her for possession three times. And he repeatedly attempts to plant evidence on her, either coopting Holiday’s lovers or his agents.
But just who was Anslinger in real life? Turns out, he was a lot like his movie counterpart — except even worse.
Anslinger rose to prominence during the Prohibition era
Born in Altoona, Penn. in 1892, Anslinger entered law enforcement at age 23 and spent the next 12 years in various civilian and military law enforcement jobs rooting out drug trafficking. By 1929 he was working in the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition but after federal agencies were rocked by multiple scandals, he gained a reputation for honesty and incorruptibility — and acquired political cachet. In 1930 he was named the founding commissioner for the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a job he would hold for the next 32 years.
He started what became the ‘War on Drugs’
While the term “war on drugs” was coined by Richard Nixon in 1971, the apparatus that made it possible came decades earlier, with Anslinger playing an enormous role.
In “The United States vs Billie Holiday,” Holiday notes that Anslinger “can’t afford to lose” with his narcotics crackdowns, adding “look what happened to prohibition.” What she’s referencing is the fact that the government couldn’t control the country’s urge to drink, criminals stepped in to supply the demand people couldn’t fill legally, and eventually the government just gave up and re-legalized booze with the passage of the the 21st amendment in 1933.
The result was that federal apparatus created to deal with ‘demon rum’ in the 1920s now had to find new justification to exist, and that justification became drugs. (Similarly, criminal organizations like the American Mafia that rose to power selling bootleg booze had to find a new source of income.)
Anslinger was particularly cynical though, drastically changing his views towards cannabis after alcohol was re-legalized. “During the Prohibition, Anslinger was indifferent at best in regards to marijuana; he did not want to allocate his already limited resources to yet another drug law when he viewed other narcotics such as heroin and cocaine as far more dangerous,” Boston Political Review notes, adding that Anslinger changed his mind “in need of a new career path.”
Anslinger advocated for increasingly draconian anti-drug laws and relied heavily on misinformation and xenophobia to promote them. And he would eventually become one of the main individuals responsible for classifying cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance — which means that as far as the government is concerned, it’s worse than cocaine, and equivalent to heroin.
For more on how Anslinger impacted drug classification and sentencing in the U.S., check out Eric Schlosser’s book “Reefer Madness.”
Billie Holiday wasn’t the only Black artist he tried to take down
The war on drugs wasn’t just about a career reboot and a penchant for authoritarianism for Anslinger. His support for draconian anti-drug laws was rooted in outright racism. And Anslinger had a particularly deep grudge against Jazz musicians.
Jazz was of course the first Black form of music to achieve truly mainstream success in America and it caused periodic racist backlashes until its place in society was supplanted by Rock and Roll and later, Hip Hop. And Anslinger kept a file called “Marijuana and Musicians” packed with undercover details on the day’s biggest Black stars.
He also headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for 30 years, and Holiday was just one of the many people of color targeted in his anti-drug crusade, though she was the most well-known. And later during the Civil Rights era, Anslinger also took orders from infamous FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to take down and undermine the Black Panthers and other groups combating racism.
But, and we bet this won’t surprise you, when sounding the alarm about the dangers of drugs and the need for harsh punishments for users, White addicts were rarely discussed and often enabled. For instance, when Anslinger found out that Judy Garland was, like Holliday, also a heroin addict, he merely wrote MGM suggesting she take “longer vacations.”
Anslinger did send a Black federal agent to tail Holiday
While it’s unclear how much truth there is to the love story between Holiday and federal agent Jimmy Fletcher in Daniels’ film, it is definitely true that Anslinger sent Fletcher, who was Black, to tail Holiday while she was on tour, and demanded Fletcher find evidence that Holiday was doing drugs. Eventually this led to Holiday’s infamous arrest in May 1947, which came with an outsized 366 day prison sentence.
Anslinger sent Fletcher, one of the FBI’s few Black agents at the time, to follow Holiday, because he knew a white agent tailing her into Jazz clubs would raise suspicion. As Johann Hari, author of “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” (which portions of Daniels’ film are heavily based on), told NPR, “Harry Anslinger hated employing African Americans, but you couldn’t really send a white guy into Harlem to stalk Billie Holiday. It’d be kind of obvious. So he employed a guy called Jimmy Fletcher, who was known as a bagman.”
While he followed Holiday looking for incriminating evidence, Fletcher did get close to her — read more about Fletcher’s involvement with Holiday here.