VOD film review: The United States vs Billie Holiday
Ivan Radford | On 27, Feb 2021
Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund
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From Seberg to MLK/FBI, cinema is going through a phase of documenting the way in which the FBI targeted notable public figures advocating for social change (watch out for Judas and the Black Messiah in the near future). The United States vs Billie Holiday joins the club, chronicling the way that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics launched an undercover sting operation against the singer in the 1940s.
The spark for that sting operation comes from her performance of Strange Fruit, a song that addressed the lynching of Black people and left Narcotics Bureau boss Harry J Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) determined to undermine both that track and the woman who made it popular. There’s interesting material here, in the way that culture can be used to help bringing momentum to movements, in the way that authorities can use illegal means to delegitimise the people they’re afraid of, and, particularly, in the conflicts that arise when they appoint a Black agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), to monitoring Lady Day and infiltrating his way into her inner circle.
That potential, though, often goes untapped by Lee Daniels’ biopic, one that lacks the focus needed to do justice to its iconic leading lady. While attempting to reclaim her story, taking it away from a tragic victim narrative of drugs, abuse and bad choices and highlighting the lesser-seen persecution she faced through her career, the film tries to stuff too many things into one two-hour-plus account. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks takes us from the halls of political power to nightclubs and prison, and there’s a feeling that we’re lurching between all of these things, one that might be intentional but also becomes distracting.
The script dives deep into the bond that forms between the singer and Fletcher, a relationship that we don’t really know all that much about. It’s certainly one that we get invested in, with Rhodes fantastically charismatic in the role of Day’s confidante and conspiring snoop. But it also leaves other relationships and marriages skipped over, Hedlund’s antagonist feeling cartoonish and Natasha Lyonne sorely underused as Tallulah Bankhead. Moments of trauma and abuse, meanwhile, are depicted with unflinching horror – the opening photograph is almost garishly upsetting – to the point of whiplash. Lee’s visual style and production design is as striking as ever, with the costumes and restaurant scenes gorgeously evoking the period, but it’s simultaneously too much and not enough. “Jazz is the devil’s work!” declares Anslinger partway through. Subtle, it ain’t.
It’s almost an apt testament to Andra Day, then, that her Billie Holiday can’t be overshadowed or eclipsed by everything going on around her. Day, who sang the anthem Rise Up, has big shoes to fill, with Holiday previously portrayed on screen by Diana Ross and Audra McDonald, but she steps into them with a superb performance, one that embraces the complexities at the heart of the blues icon. She performs Billie’s hits herself, with a scratching authenticity and emotion that really packs a punch, and the moments when The United States vs Billie Holiday stops its fighting and just watches Billie Holiday in her own right are wonderful; it’s hard to believe this is her first major acting role. In one poignant moment, we see her begin to sing Strange Fruit, before she’s hurriedly interrupted and dragged offstage. Watching the film, you kind of understand how she feels.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.