Review: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”

Get ready folks this might be a harsh one.
Billie Holiday has been the subject of Hollywood in the past, most notably the 1972 Oscar contender “Lady Sings the Blues”, thanks to her status as an innovative jazz and pop singer and her significance in the 1940s and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and the War of Drugs of that era. Her drug use and controversial song “Strange Fruit”, which shed light on the evils of the still legal at the time act of lynching, made her the target of FBI investigations and silencing tactics which, in turn, added to her legacy as an icon. Her’s was an interesting and trouble life worthy of the big screen, and who better to bring it to life than Lee Daniels, who directed “Precious” and “The Butler”, and screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Perks? Their efforts resulted in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” which explores the aforementioned battle between Holiday and the law starring Andra Day as Holiday. The film most recently earned a couple of Golden Globe Nominations including Best Original Song while Day earned a win for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. Unfortunately, the music and Day’s electrifying central performance are the few highlights of an otherwise dull take on Holiday and her legacy.

Screenshot Courtesy of Hulu

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is one of countless black stories brought to the big screen over the past few years and, as previously mentioned, she’s a worthy figure to focus on seeing as Holiday was a superstar in a tumultuous time just prior to the Civil Rights Movement and an influential and outspoken artist at that. However, despite his past successes bringing black stories to the screen Lee Daniels turns in one of his most middling films to date with a presentation that feels unfocused and chooses to tackle its story with style rather than focus on the underlying substance. To be frank, I found this movie an absolute bore and a chore to get through mostly because I didn’t feel like it was all that interesting nor could I really get a grasp of the tone or direction it wanted to embrace. The movie focuses on the final decade of Holiday’s career and at first seems like it’s going to specifically focus on her struggle with the FBI who wanted to silence her from singing her controversial hit “Strange Fruit”. However, by the second act we’ve gotten past the court battles and suddenly we’re focusing on her attempts to leave behind her drug use, her affair with a black FBI agent and her return to the stage after prison time with the film often feeling like it’s simply hitting on certain beats rather than reveling in the significance of any of these parts of Holiday’s life.

Screenshot Courtesy of Hulu

While I appreciated a lot of what this movie had to say about what the 40s were like for black Americans in a pre-Civil Rights era, a lot of it either felt extremely downplayed or over the top and manipulative rarely striking that perfect middle ground to provide anything thought provoking or unique in terms of historical storytelling. While the themes and harsh truths are shocking, they’re nothing we haven’t seen before and it often stray away from exploring Holiday’s story in favor of a wider social message that lacks the subtlety to strike the same chord many black stories have done in recent years. The fact that the pacing and tone feel all over the place and the artistic decisions by Daniels often overshadow much of the story and drag it out longer than it probably should have been don’t help sell the narrative or make the experience very fun or engrossing. It might seem in poor taste to criticize a movie about the struggles of Black Americans, but I’ve praised such films many times in the past and I just found this particular one to be ineffective. There’s little about the writing or story that helped keep me invested beyond Holiday’s stint in prison and while there are some powerful moments, like Holiday witnessing the result of a lynching first hand, they feel hollow thanks to the inability of the story surrounding them to offer anything of substance to compliment them.

Screenshot Courtesy of Hulu

You know what IS good about this movie though? Andra Day. It’s been a long time since I’ve found a movie that felt so bland but still deserved award season buzz based on a single performance alone. Day, a Grammy nominated singer herself in her first starring role, is the centerpiece of the movie and the only thing that kept me along for the entire ride. If there’s anything about this movie that truly captures Billie Holiday it is, thankfully, the actress who won a much-deserved Golden Globe over the weekend for the role. Day puts on a clinic in this movie showcasing incredible control of her craft both on stage and in front of the camera capturing Holiday’s internal and external struggles effectively and often overshadowing the material she has to work with. In a cast of largely forgettable characters played by very good actors, Day is the exception as her talents are not wasted on the script and screenplay but make everything about Holiday in this movie better and more convincing. She owns this role bearing it all for the audience, in some cases quite literally, and I wish she had more time to shine because she’s a fine example of how this movie could have worked if it took a step back and let her and the cast do what they do best rather than overcompensating and struggling to find added relevance in a real-life tale that didn’t really need it. Bottom line, I’m glad I watched this movie for Day’s performance alone!

Screenshot Courtesy of Hulu

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is, at best, a mixed bag filled with odd creative choices, chaotic pacing, a jumble of tones and a drawn-out story that says some important things but often tries to hard to drive home its themes rather than fully invest in Holiday’s story. While Andra Day is a powerhouse who deserves the accolades she has and will hopefully will soon receive from industry award shows not much else about this movie helps it stand out from the crowd in an era where black stories are, thankfully and rightfully so, receiving more and more attention on the big and small screen. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it unwatchable or “bad” per say, it’s just not very engaging and lacks a certain focus or commitment to do justice to Holiday’s life the way previous movies have. Thankfully Andra Day pulls off the rare accomplishment of carrying the entire film on her shoulders magnificently. I have a hard time deciding if I think this movie tried to do too much with too little or tried to do too little to cover too much, but it definitely failed to find a middle road to accomplish its mission. Still, the central performance at the heart of it all makes it worth recommending, but I suggest you go into it simply for the pleasure of a deserving Golden Globe winning performance and leave the rest of your high expectations at the door.

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