Andra Day Shines In The Uneven ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ – Review
Billie Holiday was more than a jazz icon. Holiday was a beacon to many, especially amongst Black Americans. The NAACP called her “the voice of our people.” In The United States vs. Billie Holiday, director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks attempt to approach telling the story of the famed singer through a more intimate lens, focusing on the FBN’s (Federal Bureau of Narcotics) pursuit of her, and the highs and lows of her personal life and career.
The film largely focuses on Holiday’s later life with brief glimpses into her past, but it specifically dives into her life after the release of her rendition of “Strange Fruit”. The song’s release and its message heightened the FBN’s unwarranted paranoia against Holiday, believing the song would incite riots and serve as a catalyst to further the Civil Rights Movement. As seen in the film, Holiday was undeterred by the FBN’s pursuit of her. In fact, Holiday continued to sing “Strange Fruit” even after her manager and the various concert halls urged her to remove the song from her setlist.
Based in part on the book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, The United States vs. Billie Holiday unintentionally falls victim to the formulaic way in which most recent biopics are told–especially ones about musicians. While it was something I expected based on the current trend of things, it was still my hope that due to the complexity of the subject matter, that this wouldn’t be the case for The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
For example, I wish that more time was spent on learning about Holiday’s past instead of breezing over it in a short sequence. Holiday lived through various cycles of abuse in her short lifetime and an addiction to both heroin and alcohol–something that the FBN used against her time and time again as a punishment. Instead of focusing on these aspects of her life and how they shaped her as an individual, the movie instead spent more time on her relationships and “entanglements”. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that as relationships can play their part in defining a person, it seemed as though there was more of this than anything else. In a way, it diminished Holiday as a character in this biopic and as a complex person which she was in real life.
Holiday’s harassment by the FBN went on for two decades with Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) at the forefront. The harassment included multiple court stints, trips to prison and numerous other forms of abuse of power that we are still unaware of. However, the saddest of attempts involved the Bureau using a Black Federal Agent to get to Holiday. While it is mentioned, the nuance wasn’t exactly there to pull the entire thing off. The film is too wrapped up in the love affair, that it neglects to truly show the lengths that the majority white FBN went through in order to silence Holiday, and how their targets were mostly Black people. Look, there is nothing wrong with a good love story (not that I would refer to this one as “good” by any means, however, it did feel like it lends itself to making the serious subject matter feel confused.
However, despite the familiarity in the film’s execution and the unevenness, the performances from the cast shine the brightest. Andra Day puts her entire being into her portrayal of Holiday and doesn’t miss a beat. She has a commanding presence that demands your attention in every scene she’s in. The mannerisms, particularly in the phrasing and tempo in which Holiday sang are nailed by Day. From the iconic performances given to the struggle with addiction and the more intimate parts of Holiday’s life, it is clear that Day is all-in. In every facet of Holiday’s life, Day managed to bring forth every single thing that made Holiday special. It is certainly the film’s best feature in addition to the rich musical component.
The supporting characters in the film are equally great and help bolster the film. Trevante Rhodes and Day had amazing chemistry together as a couple fated for heartbreak as Jimmy Fletcher and Holiday. To me, it seemed as though Daniels was trying to capture the allure between Holiday and Louis McKay as played by Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams in Lady Sings the Blues. If this was the intention, then Daniels succeeded. The tension between Day and Rhodes was palpable and convincing. In addition, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Miss Lawrence as Roslyn and Miss Freddy, respectively, were also great in their roles. Although, I do wish that they had more time to capture the dramatic essence of the film and not just appear for comedic relief.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday isn’t a completely bad film – but after it ended, but I couldn’t help but think, “That’s it?” Yes, Holiday died at the age of 44, and clearly could have had a lot more life to live, but I felt as though the film itself didn’t spend enough time on certain aspects of her life in lieu of others. At times, the movie focused more on the dramatic “soap opera-esque” parts of her life, instead of providing a nuanced look at Holiday, the harassment she suffered, and how she was still a voice for the people.