The title: "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," implies a movie that will feature some sort of lawsuit against one of the greatest jazz singers of all-time. But this is no court-room drama. Instead, the title categorizes not only how Holiday fought against the norms of the time, but how the FBI tried desperately to silence her voice both literally and figuratively.
"The Unites States vs. Billie Holiday" is not the first on-screen depiction of Billie Holiday. She was famously portrayed by Diana Ross in the 1972 film, "Lady Sings the Blues," based on Holiday's autobiography, and the 1986 play and film, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," portrayed by Reenie Upchurch and then Audra McDonald. Singer Andra Day is a sensational choice to inhabit the role in this newest film, having exploded onto the R&B scene in 2015 with her inspirational anthem, "Rise Up," and her album "Cheers to the Fall." This is Day's first starring film role, and it indelibly will not be her last.
Day breathes life into what is otherwise a mess of a film, populated by several under-cooked and under-served characters, save for Jimmy Fletcher ("Moonlight" breakout-star Trevante Rhodes), her love interest who also was used as a pawn by the FBI to take Holiday down. Director Lee Daniels has a lot to say but doesn't quite bring things into focus with Holiday's story...narratively-speaking, "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" is somewhere between "Lee Daniels The Butler" and "Precious" when it comes to honing in on a subject's journey.
Billie Holiday, by the way, is a legend who was gone way too early...a phenom talent who struggled mightily with drugs and alcohol for much of her life, following a rape when she was just 10 years old. Part of her rise to stardom came with the release of her song, "Strange Fruit," a poetic tune that describes in great detail the lynching of a black man in the South. As radios refused to play it and local authorities disallowed her from performing it, the song took on a life of its own and helped define Billie as somewhat of a revolutionary figure in jazz music.
Identifying this song as a danger to the public, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), is tasked with putting an end to Holiday's defiance. He enlists black FBI agent jimmy Fletcher to infiltrate Holiday's inter-circle, looking to pin her down on drug charges, since they couldn't drum up anything else. It works, as Holiday is sent to prison, but Fletcher struggles mightily with his role in it all...on one hand he's trying to "do the right thing" by helping to get drugs off the streets, but on the other he is slowly realizing that he is being used by his white "masters" to do their dirty work. He has real feelings for Holiday, but is torn between duty and purpose.
Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher has the most compelling arc in the entire film, even more so than Andra Day as Holiday. But nearly everyone else is rendered paper-thin. Because Daniels is trying to make his film a powerful statement instead of a raw biography, the dialogue is often a bit on-the-nose throughout, and at 130 minutes, the whole thing just seems a bit fat and meandering.
One take-away that Daniels makes clear is also unforgivable: He bookends the movie by letting us know that a 1937 bill to make lynching a federal crime failed...and here in 2021, there is still no such law. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
The cumulative performances of Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes are simply not enough to overcome the overall tonal sloppiness of "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," a film that hits some high notes but never quite finds its rhythm.
Genre: Biography, Drama, Music.
Run Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
Based on the novel "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs" by Johann Hari.
Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Miss Lawrence, Leslie Jordan, Natasha Lyonne, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da'Vine Joy Randolph.
Directed by Lee Daniels ("Lee Daniels' The Butler," "The Paperboy," "Precious," "Shadowboxer").
"The United States vs. Billie Holiday" is available on Hulu on Friday, February 26th, 2021.
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