"The United States Vs. Billie Holiday" tackles the singers troubled past and efficacious lyrics
Sex, drugs, and government persecution take a front seat in this biopic about the legendary jazz singer, Billie Holiday.
Holiday’s narrative plays out with one living nightmare after another in the Hulu original directed by Lee Daniels and written by Suzan-Lori Parks. The film, based on the book Chasing Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, begins with Holiday sitting down in an interview with fictional journalist, Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) who’s eccentricity is more captivating than his subject, initially. As the interview progresses, you see just why Andra Day was cast to play Billie Holiday. At this point, she hasn’t sung a word but her mannerisms and speaking tone mirror the late Holiday quite effortlessly.
Leslie Jordan as Reginald Lord Devine
Day, a Grammy-nominated recording artist, openly spoke of her fears in taking this role. She never acted before but her performance in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday is a huge factor in my final rating for the film.
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday takes place during the last dozen years of Holiday's life (she died at 44) with a flashback or two of her childhood growing up in a brothel. Holiday suffers abuse at the hands of several men throughout the movie. When she finds some solace in one man, Jimmy (Trevante Rhodes), he happens to be an undercover FBI agent who assists in her arrest.
Trevante Rhodes and Andra Day
Garrett Hedlund portrays Harry Anslinger, a racist, anti-narcotics, extremist at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger hated Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” the anti-lynching song first recorded by Holiday in 1939 stating,
"PEOPLE ARE CALLING THE SONG THE MUSICAL STARTING GUN FOR THE SO-CALLED CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT"
Hedlund as Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger
Determined to stop her from ever performing the song again, Anslinger finds a way to arrest Holiday on drug charges, aptly utilizing Jimmy to lure her in by showing he is a trustworthy super fan. Holiday is arraigned and serves a year in prison and she permanently loses her cabaret performer's card.
“The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” does play out in an ‘everyone against Billie’ tone. She has some friends, some tiny bits of happiness but overall this movie is about her pain, her addictions, and her downfalls. The music that this genius created is used as a transition from scene to scene rather than the reason we are watching.
The mood of the film isn’t surprising for a Lee Daniels project. The same elements of suffering, violence, and aspiration are also present in his past films like “Precious” and “The Butler”. Daniels takes a few liberties in this biographical film, adding characters and changing scenarios. Jimmy is a constant figure throughout, becoming Holiday’s confidant after her prison stay but there’s no record of an actual sexual relationship between the two as portrayed in the film.
I was intrigued by the scenes with Billie Holiday and stage actress Tallulah Bankhead ( Natasha Lyonne). They were indeed close friends and the implication that they were more than friends have also been proven to some extent to be correct. Tallulah Bankhead is my relative and I’ve heard titillating stories about her relationship with Holiday throughout my life.
WATCH: MY PERSONAL REFLECTION ON BILLIE HOLIDAY AND TALLULAH BANKHEAD
When the viewer does get a break from the scandal and melancholy, Andra Day’s singing voice is phenomenal. Like Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, Day lends her actual voice to Holiday’s famous songs.
The stage shots of Day performing are captured beautifully by cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Most of the film sits in the realm of uncomfortable imagery-lynchings, violence, sexual abuse- so when you get that colorful glimpse of Holiday in her moments on stage it is a well-needed break from the bulk of the film’s harshness. The culmination of the movie's theme happens after Holiday, stepping off of a tour bus, stumbles upon the horrific aftermath of a lynching. The screams from the victim's family members not only startled Holiday but myself as a viewer. This scene was made more impactful when the camera cuts to Holiday preparing to perform backstage and ultimately singing, “Strange Fruit” in its entirety for the first time in the movie. This scene proves Lee is a good director who makes memorable choices. Unfortunately, not every directorial choice was as seamless.
Overall, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday may not go down in history as the greatest biopic of all time but it will be the film that began Andra Day’s acting career. If she chooses to continue, she will gain notoriety and respect after this excellent portrayal of Lady Day.
I give The United States Vs. Billie Holiday 4 out of 5 Hearts!
TRAILER COURTESY OF HULU