The United States vs. Billie Holiday, 2021.
Directed by Lee Daniels.
Starring Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Melvin Gregg, Natasha Lyonne, Tyler James Williams, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Rob Morgan, Miss Lawrence, Evan Ross, and Tone Bell.
Follows Holiday during her career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had a tumultuous affair.
Lee Daniels doesn’t just fall victim to his own worst impulses with The United States vs. Billie Holiday, but also the dreaded familiar missteps of biopics. Fortunately, he does have the immensely talented singer Andra Day in his corner who not only looks the part of the eponymous Grammy award-winning trailblazer but also sounds it whether she’s pulling off one of the many stage numbers (used haphazardly here to a fault) or mimicking her strained voice from decades of drug abuse.
Andra Day is also willing to roll with and commit to the onslaught of domestic violence, sexual assault (there’s a slimy sequence from her teenage years working in a brothel that younger counterpart Yvanna-Rose Leblanc deserves a mention for), heroin, atrocities enacted against relatives, and all-around controlling and unhealthy relationships that, because of this disturbing past, she seems drawn to like a bee to honey. With that said, I don’t want to take too much away from the performers as they are doing their best to make it work, but from a creative standpoint it’s confounding given that Lee Daniels (using a script from Suzan-Lori Parks based on the book by Johann Hari) has once again chosen on relentless melodramatic torment when he already has the perfect story in mind for the film; it’s right there in the title.
Much like Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent influential Black historical figures, the United States government masqueraded aspects of its war on drugs to take down the ones that had something important to say, could sway popular opinion, and promote changes towards equality while drawing attention to horrific acts of violence still being carried out (the film takes place across the 1940s with a somewhat pointless interview framing device before her death in the 1950s breaking up sections). The Federal Department of Narcotics sent out agent Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund, who I suppose is making a bankable career off playing racists) to crack down on Billie Holiday targeting her struggles with substance abuse as a way to lock her up and get her out of the civil rights picture. To get closer and frame Billie, Harry had fellow agent (and one of the first to be Black) Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) pose as a soldier getting close to the jazz star.
Considering the timing, it’s also relevant to note that The United States vs. Billie Holiday is releasing within weeks of Judas and the Black Messiah, the story of Fred Hampton which involves a similar narrative strand of an undercover Black agent being misled by white superiors. The differences are twofold: this movie is all over the place with its story to the point where following the initial arrest of Billie Holiday and one-year sentencing the two ended up having an affair without so much as really diving into Jimmy’s realization that he is not being used for a worthwhile cause or jail life/getting clean. Sure, there’s a prison montage but for Lee Daniels, it’s just another opportunity to showcase more inhumane punishment rather than explore the situation. And I’m not saying this movie needs to be any longer, because it absolutely doesn’t already at over two hours, but it’s overstuffed with characters and plot points like a typical biopic.
Then there is the impression that The United States vs. Billie Holiday is actually going out of its way to not be about those federal injustices. There is admittedly one harrowing stretch of abuse that is effective, mostly because the material is restrained for once with a clear and concise vision behind the purpose of the segment, leading directly into a rebellious performance of the controversial hit Strange Fruit. The song in question is a poetic and graphic description of a lynching, and primarily why the FBI wants to get rid of her; it’s a reminder that the past is still the present. In this case, literally present day as some ending text reminds viewers of an anti-lynching bill that has yet to pass.
The rest is Lee Daniels smashing together notable events in Billie Holiday’s life (a defiant outburst at her restricted access to a hotel service elevator), glimpses of troubled relationships (including hints of a possible romance with actress Tallulah Bankhead, as played by Natasha Lyonne, that feels crammed in for the sake of it), and concerts poorly filling in the gaps. The costume design is certainly impressive and much effort has been made to re-create the 1940s (famous buildings such as Carnegie Hall and commercial brand logos), but it’s all in service of a messy narrative that needs a more calculated focus, all of which Andra Day is unable to overcome despite incredible efforts.
At most, The United States vs. Billie Holiday just made me want to go back in time to when the masses were interested in consuming challenging entertainment such as songs like Strange Fruit instead of the usual suspects bitching whenever art dare gets political. That dynamic would be worth exploring more than in-your-face abuse, and the same goes for the United States actively trying to take down Billie Holiday. Thankfully, whatever is transpiring on screen, Andra Day is terrific and the film looks good. Apart from that, it’s a disposable and disjointed slog of physical and mental abuse; the real Billie Holiday deserved better in life as sure as she deserves a better biopic than this.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com