Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

As the title so starkly conveys, the theme of Lee Daniels’ biopic of the woman who many believe to be the greatest jazz singer of all time is the constant struggle Billie Holiday endured just to exist, but the story that Daniels tells, while rooted in her drug addiction and the attendant scrutiny by law enforcement, ranges beyond the overt systematic racism of those in authority to focus equally on those Black men who kept her down at every turn, and not just sexually. For that reason, the movie is often a veil of misery and pain punctured occasionally by one of Andra Day’s stupefyingly redolent impersonations of Holiday in performance, so depending on what you bring to the movie, your appreciation may vary widely. For sure, this is not a hagiography, nor an appreciation of artistic genius, and it shouldn’t be. But it sticks Holiday in an unflattering box, removing most of the personal agency from her tale.

Daniels’ canniest choice is to build the plot around Holiday’s most indelible hit, “Strange Fruit,” a poetic but unblinking depiction of a lynching. The song was so controversial that eventually even federal agents forbade her from performing it lest it stir up bad feelings in Black audiences, who would then recycle the resulting resentment into non-compliance with laws designed to keep them “in their place.” Holiday knew this and, according to the movie, sang it for the express reason of provoking those emotions, so, in a sense, the FBI had a point by dint of their own racist fundamentals. The script, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, connects Holiday’s combative artistic sensibility to her heroin addiction, which she never really renounced even when she attempted to kick it, as well as her chronic choice of abusive partners. Some reviewers have griped that focusing on this aspect of Holiday’s emotional makeup shortchanges her as a human being for the sake of dramatic force, but there’s a lot to be said for the image of a strong black woman who refuses to bend to others’ wills even when that stubbornness might kill her. However, Parks miscalculates by centering much of this conflict on the relationship between Holiday and a Black federal agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who is tasked with finding dirt on her. That Fletcher is Holiday’s most avid fan first and her lover later adds too many subtexts to a movie that already feels top heavy with meaning, aside from whatever information you might glean about her actual life. Fletcher was apparently a real person who regretted his role in Holiday’s ongoing suffering, but the sex stuff was apparently all Parks’ idea. 

Consequently, the biggest problem some viewers will have is with the sexual violence and the drug use, which are explicit to the point of physiological repulsion. Day, an R&B singer who has never acted before, is, quite simply, astounding, and not just because of her vocal chops. If she deserved that Oscar nomination in the eyes of the Academy, it’s likely because very few other actors can imagine putting themselves through what she did to realize Parks’ and Daniels’ vision, regardless of whether you think that vision was worth pursuing.

Opens Feb. 11 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

The United States vs. Billie Holiday home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Billie Holiday Films, LLC

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