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The United States vs. Billie Holiday

R16: Sex scenes, violence, drug use, offensive language & nudity

Spoiler alert

This page outlines how the classification criteria were applied. We do our best to discuss the content while avoiding spoilers, but please avoid reading this information if you do not want to learn anything about the content of this movie.

About the film

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, and charts Billie Holiday’s career, her fraught relationships and struggle with heroin addiction. The film centres around Holiday’s, then, controversial song, ‘Strange Fruit’ – about lynchings in the American South. Officials realise they cannot arrest Billie for singing ‘Strange Fruit’, so they hire Jimmie Fletcher to bring her down on drug charges instead.

There were several elements we considered when classifying this film. The most significant of these were the sex scenes and intravenous drug use but offensive language also contributed to the need for a restriction.


Image for The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Date registered: 19/04/2021

Classification criteria: Sex

The film contains a couple of moderately strong sex scenes with nudity. Both scenes are vigorous in their passion and are likely to be confronting for children and younger teens.

Classification criteria: Crime

Heroin abuse is a pervasive destructive force in Billie’s life. She is regularly high or said to be high. While the heroin use in the film is not glamorised or promotional, it is somewhat instructional and confronting. Billie and her crew are depicted preparing and injecting heroin on several occasions. Although the historical context somewhat diminishes the normalising effect, the instructional depiction of intravenous drug abuse is still somewhat shocking and disturbing.

Classification criteria: Offensive language

The film contains regular offensive language. Black characters frequently call friends and associates the ‘n-word', using the terms not as a slur or insult but in the way one might use ‘friend’. The ‘n-word' is also occasionally used as an insult by racist law enforcement. Other offensive language is regularly used by characters to provide impact to their speech. The extent of the language is likely to have an inuring effect on children and encourage imitation.

Other content that was considered but did not contribute to the classification was violence and degrading and demeaning behaviour associated with prejudice.

Classification criteria: Degrading, dehumanising or demeaning behaviour

Billie faces various humiliations as a black woman in the 1940s, which degrade and demean her, including being forced to use the service elevator. The effect is to make the audience empathise with Billie and while her treatment is likely to upset many for the way it reflects historical racist attitudes towards African Americans, it is unlikely to adversely affect younger viewers.

Classification criteria: Violence

Connected to the prejudice black people face in the film, is the issue of lynching. The film contains brief depictions of lynching and the idea of it frames the film, both opening and closing with notes about an anti-lynching bills.

Billie has violent relationships with two of her lovers. The domestic violence is unsettling but the overall impact is low.

Sexual violence is referenced but not shown.

Decision summary

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a biopic about fame, drug addiction and racism in 1940s America. The regular musical numbers mean it is likely to appeal to lovers of Billie Holiday’s music. Its treatment of historical racism in relation to America’s ‘war on drugs’ mean it is relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The film deals predominantly with matters of sex and crime. Moderately strong sex scenes, involving nudity, indicate that film is unsuitable for children. Instructional depictions of intravenous drug use and its effect are likely to shock and disturb younger audiences. Furthermore, the regularity of these depictions are likely to have a normalising effect, despite the historical distance. The frequent highly offensive language also contribute to the need for a restriction.

Balancing these harms against the right to freedom of expression, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is classified R16. This is the lowest reasonable limit on that right in order to prevent injury to the public good.

Contact the Information Unit if you require further information on a classification decision.

R16 label
R16: Sex scenes, violence, drug use, offensive language & nudity