Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 26th, 2021
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Lee Daniels, 2021) 1 out of 4 stars.
There is an intriguing recent film about the late Billie Holiday, that great jazz diva of a bygone era, known for her heartbreaking rendition of the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” (along with much else). Born in 1915, dead at 44 in 1959 of cirrhosis, she led a hard life, filled with abuse and neglect, drinking and drug addiction. Celebrated by the world at large for her magnificent singing, she was also incarcerated by her own government (for heroin use). She was sui generis, and suffered for it. In James Erskine’s documentary Billie, the director explores Holiday’s tragic circumstances, self-destructive tendencies and unfortunate love affairs alongside her uncompromising and brilliant talent. He delivers a powerful tale made more intriguing because of its parallel story of a now-deceased journalist whose recorded interviews with Holiday’s associates provide much of its audio content. Unfortunately, that is not the film we are here to discuss, but rather the far less worthy The United States vs. Billie Holiday, from director Lee Daniels (The Butler).
How to begin? Where credit is given, let credit be due. With a story drawn from author Johann Hari’s nonfiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, the movie’s blueprint resides in the script by Suzan-Lori Parks (Native Son), which features the occasional innovative touch yet all too often leads us astray. Daniels does not help things with his frequently baroque mise-en-scène, turning moments of genuine pathos into turgid affairs, emotion lost in the ostentatious clamor. Worse, we are rarely given the opportunity to appreciate the protagonist’s genius; it’s there, but lost in the surrounding mess.
Which is deeply regrettable, given the important themes of the narrative. Our nation’s systemic racism, complete with horrific violence against African Americans, is amply on display. The corruption and white supremacy of the FBI in the J. Edgar Hoover era is front and center. The way that early-childhood mistreatment can condemn one to a lifelong need for self-medication also fights for attention. Surprisingly, given how long the film is (130 minutes), nothing gets the full treatment it deserves. At least it all looks pretty.
That holds especially true for two of the federal agents, Harry Anslinger and Jimmy Fletcher, played by Garrett Hedlund (Dirt Music) and Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), each of whom fills out their period clothes with style, if not substance. Both are historical figures, the former the man largely responsible for hounding Holiday all the way to her grave. Fletcher is that rare apparition, a 1940s Black G-man, a character ripe for deep analysis who gets only the lightest of psychological profiles. Anslinger is a racist brute to the core, which seems true to the record, if hardly compelling. Neither hold our interest for very long.
Who does? Why, real-life singer Andra Day, in the titular role. She mesmerizes, rising above the structural fray (and she also gets to wear striking outfits, as well). With a performance as committed as this, it’s a shame the rest doesn’t measure up. Still, if this film, as jumbled as it may be, can make even one person who has never heard Holiday listen up and tune in, perhaps learning details of yet another instance of oppression, then The United States vs. Billie Holiday will serve some kind of purpose. Let it be so, and forget the rest.