REVIEW: The United States vs Billie Holiday (2021)
The true power of music is its ability to carry a voice and a message beyond the limitations of its time and into the future. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is one such vital example of the kind of lingering and potent stories living on within songs. Due to its political controversy and vivid protest against the legal lynching of Black Americans in the South, “Strange Fruit” gleaned the jazz singer a significant amount of conflicted attention at the time of its release that would change the very course of her life. Thus is the subject at the heart of Lee Daniels’ (Precious, The Butler) latest film, The United States vs Billie Holiday.
The film follows Holiday (Andra Day) as she becomes the unusual subject of a federal narcotics sting operation headed by the department’s openly racist first commissioner, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund). Concerned that Holiday’s music will continue to give voice to the growing Civil Rights movement, Anslinger assigns undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes) to infiltrate her trust, monitor her drug use and set her up on possession charges. The rest of the film flickers back and forth between Holiday’s genuine struggles with heroin addiction, her time spent in jail, numerous romantic relationships, her stunted music career and her life-long entanglement with the US Government. Most of the film is made up of real accounts from the singer’s complicated life, aside from a fictitious relationship with Agent Fletcher, which oddly serves as the film’s central narrative device.
Given that Daniels constructs so much of the film around his own fictitious narrative, The United States vs Billie Holiday seems drawn from a similar vein as Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Josephine Decker’s Shirley. Grounded by real-life, controversial figureheads yet compelling in their unusual approach, this new sphere of fictional biopics are a welcome change of pace from the predictable, Oscar-bait, true-to-life biopic fodder. However, where Decker and King succeeded in creating streamlined narrative structures, Daniels bites off much more than he can chew with his Billie Holiday tale. Failing to stick to one specific story-line, The United States vs Billie Holiday is a mish-mashed amalgamation of ideas, challenging to navigate and baffling to contend with.
We start with Billie, telling her story to Reginald Lord Devine—an eccentric radio host played by Leslie Jordan in a very large and distracting wig—then travel back in time ten years. The decision to have Holiday recount her tale in such a way works as a great entry point into her history. However, the film moves so far away from their conversation that by the time we do eventually pick back up with them, their relevance in the narrative seems totally confused and unnecessary. The central fictitious relationship between Holiday and Agent Carter works as a way to explore more of Holiday’s personality and emotional character, yet, the real story of political activism, federal corruption and censorship happening in the background of their relationship seems much more important and worthy of its own standalone feature film.
We flip-flop between political discussion, federal non-characters and overly graphic scenes of drug-use: needles going into arms, splurting blood, severe-looking bruises and people nodding out. These scenes do little to accentuate Daniels’ storytelling, relying too much on uncomfortable content rather than working to make us empathise with Holiday’s point of view. Other ideas occasionally spill into the forefront; Daniels hints at Billie’s romantic relationship with Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), but she slips away as quickly as she appears. We also dance around ideas of domestic violence, rape and an abusive childhood, but Daniels drops these issues before he can add any significant weight to them. Lost in a labyrinth of jumbled plot, Billie Holiday feels entirely unknowable.
Most of the film’s strengths come from newcomer Andra Day, who disappears into Holiday entirely. Her voice growls with Holiday’s immediately identifiable rough edges that tinge each one of her songs with a heart-wrenching melancholy. Her movements are poised and studied; her emotion bleeds into each scene, permeating the entire film with a composed and undeniable style, unusual for an actress so early in her career. Costume designer Paolo Nieddu lends the story an inviting glamour, perfectly capturing Holiday’s spirit in her most iconic, high-fashion looks. There’s a real depth of detail committed to building Holiday and the delicate edges of her entire world, so it’s such a shame that the story fails to deliver the same nuanced tones.
Stylised production design by Daniel T Dorrance and gorgeous visuals by Andrew Dunn further aid the film, distracting the best they can away from Daniels’ messy plot. Most of the cast and crew unquestionably deliver some impressive, awards-worthy work here. However, the failure to construct a sleek and concise narrative flow means that The United States vs Billie Holiday amounts to not much more than the stylised trauma of one of history’s great stars.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is available on NOW TV in the UK and Hulu in the US.