When it comes to jazz I’m about as white as a white boy can be. Smokey nightclubs have never been and will never be my natural habitat. But hearing the raspy vocals of Billie Holiday has always made me long for that era somehow. After seeing Lee Daniel’s ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ I might have to reconsider that desire.
Large parts of Holiday’s childhood and rise to fame are shrouded in mystery. They’re stories that survived through hear-say and make up the legend around this iconic artist. Daniel’s film focuses on what is well known; her fall from grace when the powers that be go after her for her substance abuse.
Holiday (Andra Day) is at the top of her game when the government, and in particular FBI agent Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), tries just about everything to stop her from singing “Strange Fruit”. It’s a powerful song about lynching in the South and is considered to be dangerous and meant to incite riots and uproar. Defiant as she is, Holiday refuses. That’s when the focus of the FBI investigation shifts toward her serious heroin addiction. Determined to shut her up, Anslinger puts Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) on the case, a black FBI agent who infiltrates her social circle.
Some of the elements of Billie Holiday’s tough life were known to me but definitely not to this extent. In that regard I found this movie to be at least interesting, shedding more light on the hardships that this woman went through. The screenplay gets in its own way though. It feels unedited, like a first draft of a story that needs focus. It becomes tediously repetitive after a while, regurgitating every scene and setting at least a few times over until they lose their power completely. Some of the dialogue is also extremely on the nose and lacks any kind of subtlety.
When a screenplay like that is put in the hands of someone with a clear stylistic vision, the whole thing might still be saved. But here we have Lee Daniels who throws everything but the kitchen sink at the wall, hoping something sticks. There are weird visual choices throughout, unnecessary flourishes in transitions for instance that serve no purpose whatsoever and ultimately end up being distracting.
Through all of this there is one consistently strong element though; Andra Day. The way she embodies Holiday is nothing shy of spectacular. Her movie curriculum before this consisted of some voice over work for ‘Cars 3‘ and a small part in ‘Marshall’ with the late Chadwick Boseman. Yet she makes the transition from singer to lead actress with such ease you wonder where she’s been hiding all this time.
‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ handles timely and important themes but never quite hits the mark during its overlong runtime. Andra saves the (Holi)day though with a stellar performance.
THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY is streaming on Hulu.
Review – ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’
Reviewed online, February 26, 2021. Rating: TBC. Running time: 130 min.
PRODUCTION: A Hulu release of a Lee Daniels Entertainment, New Slate Ventures, Roth/Kirschenbaum Films production. Producers: Lee Daniels (p.g.a.), Jordan Fudge, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Joe Roth, Tucker Tooley (p.g.a.), Pamela Oas Williams (p.g.a.). Executive producers: Jeremy Allen, Mark Bomback, Cassian Elwes, Johann Hari, Patty Long, Hilary Shor, Dennis Stratton.
CREW: Director: Lee Daniels. Screenplay: Suzan-Lori Parks (based on the book “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari). Cinematography: Andrew Dunn. Editing: Jay Rabinowitz. Music: Kris Bowers.
CAST: Andra Day, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Natasha Lyonne, Trevante Rhodes, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Tyler James Williams, Garrett Hedlund.