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Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

April 18, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

2021 Academy Award nominee for Best Actress (Andra Day)

Andra Day’s titular performance in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which already won her a Golden Globe and has gotten her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress as well, is a prime example of a fine performance that gets somewhat lost in the movie around it.

A singer by trade, Day is very good in the role of Holiday, doing an impressive job of matching the legendary jazz singer’s exquisite, unmistakable voice. But the film around her is simply too poorly structured and all over the place to ever fully match the impact of her performance.

The film mainly focuses on Holiday in the latter stages of her career, as she struggles with drug addiction, falls in and out of jail, and is targeted by the FBI over her anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” The “fear” is that the song will incite a riot. But because they can’t simply stop her from performing it, though they do try through intimidation tactics at her shows, they decide to enforce the fledgling war on drugs and take down Holiday, a heroin addict, for possession instead.

This charge is masterminded by Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the inaugural chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a virulent racist who believes that African-American culture, including jazz music, is leading to the downfall of America. Anslinger is portrayed here as a cartoonish, one-note villain, which might be the film’s point, but it makes some of his scenes unintentionally laughable when they should be menacing. Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), a young Black FBI agent, is put on Holiday’s tail and tasked with taking her down, but he soon becomes conflicted about the role he is playing.

Directed by Lee Daniels, and loosely based on Johann Hari’s non-fiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs which has been adapted for the screen by Suzan-Lori Parks, The United States vs. Billie Holiday takes its cues from any number of musical biopics that have come before it. The film often has a movie of the week feel to it, going for bland melodrama rather than a more nuanced or balanced approach. It wallows in the darkness and the pity of Holiday’s life, and regrettably not much else, graphically showing her drug use and other misfortunes.

Daniels sort of haphazardly structures the film one scene after another, without much to discern when exactly these events are taking place. There is no real ebb and flow to it, just a lot of moments that feel oddly strung together. Holiday’s inspiration for writing the song “Strange Fruit,” a horrific lynching that she witnessed while on tour in the segregated South, is shown in flashback as part of a drug trip that Fletcher experiences when Holiday convinces him to shoot up, and I’m not sure if this was the best way to incorporate it into the film.

The film opens with Holiday being interviewed by a fictional journalist named Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan), a framing device that doesn’t really pay off. The other people who were in Holiday’s life at the time, including her friends Roslyn (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence), several of her husbands, and her rumoured female lover Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), pop in and out of the narrative, but never feel fully fleshed out. The dialogue is sometimes clunky and can come across as preachy.

As I mentioned earlier, Day’s Oscar-nominated performance is the one saving grace of the film. This is her first leading role, and she does a fine job of capturing both the singer’s fierce independence but also her fragility and reliance on drugs, while altering her speaking and singing voice to more closely match Holiday’s. Because she is a professional R&B singer, we are treated to excellent renditions of Holiday’s standards, including “Strange Fruit” and “All of Me,” and the performance scenes are high points.

I can’t call The United States vs. Billie Holiday a bad movie, because Andra Day’s performance is good enough to not write off the film completely. But it is a frustratingly conventional and uneven one. It suffers from being an entirely paint by numbers musical biopic, that mostly squanders its undeniably fascinating true story with a thoroughly clichéd approach.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms.

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