Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

Directed by: Lee Daniels | 130 minutes | drama, biography | Actors: Andra Day, Garrett Hedlund, Natasha Lyonne, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Trevante Rhodes, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Koumba Ball, Kate MacLellan, Kwasi Songui, Adriane Lenox, Letitia Brookes, Tyler James Williams, Warren ‘Slim’ Williams

‘Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees’. They are the first four lines of the jazz classic ‘Strange Fruit’, which was first sung in 1939 (!) by the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. If you listen carefully to the lyrics of the more than eighty year old song, you will still feel chilling shivers down your spine. ‘Strange Fruit’ is an indictment of racism that hits like a bomb because the lynching of African Americans is so powerfully and eloquently described that you can see it happening. This enormous expressiveness was one of the reasons that singer Nina Simone, who was known as an activist, also included the song in her repertoire. Holiday, who was a generation older than Simone and had already passed away before the human rights movement took off, seized the opportunity of ‘Strange Fruit’ to make a political statement in her own way.

‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ (2021) by director Lee Daniels paints a picture of the last ten years in the life of the renowned but troubled jazz singer, focusing on the witch hunt that the government held on her. When we meet her for the first time, Holiday (revelation Andra Day) is already a successful singer, who can’t resist singing the politically tinted ‘Strange Fruit’, much to the frustration of the authorities who consider her a provocateur. But you can’t arrest someone for singing a song, so ultra-conservative and racist FBI chief Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) looks for another way to stop Holiday. Her husband Monroe (Erik LaRay Harvey) insists on cutting ‘Strange Fruit’ from her repertoire, but Billie stands her ground. The song is her way of drawing attention to the atrocities black people face.

Billie’s weakness, in addition to falling for the wrong men, turns out to be her addiction to hard drugs, so the Federal Bureau of Narcotics opens the hunt for her, to sue the singer for drug offences. Anslinger recruits charming black cop Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes from 2016’s Oscar-winning ‘Moonlight’) to infiltrate the singer’s inner circle. Jimmy falls for Billie, however, and the two begin an affair.

‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ follows the familiar paths of the biopic: the ups and downs in (part of) the turbulent life of a well-known artist are packed with a great sense of drama into a simplified story that is pleasant to look away, despite the misery that passes by. There are some doubts about the extent to which the song ‘Strange Fruit’ really was a thorn in the side of the FBI, but Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks – who based themselves on the book ‘Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’ by Johann Hari – naturally have the right to afford the necessary creative liberties. Although you would expect a disclaimer (‘based on true facts’).

More disturbing than historical inaccuracy is the fact that “The United States vs. Billie Holiday’s story is quite a mess. The tempo fluctuates, causing the balance to be lost and the film taking on a fragmentary character. During the editing, quite a few of the 130 minutes could have been nibbled off, that would have only benefited the story. Daniels also makes a mess of it stylistically. Now he does that more often (the completely misplaced ‘eggs-with-bacon’ montage from ‘Precious’ (2009), for example, is still sharp on the retina), but those ‘style swings’ are rarely effective. Only with the confrontational, nightmarish flashback to Billie’s fierce childhood does he achieve the desired effect.

Fortunately, there’s Andra Day, who is a singer by birth and hadn’t acted in a feature film until she signed on for the role of her life. Day overwhelms with her enchanting performance in which she dares to be raw and hard as well as vulnerable. She also sings all the songs herself. She doesn’t sound quite the same as Holiday (there was only one of them), but she does deliver the songs with the right timing and conviction. Day deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for her role (not bad for a debutante) and won several other awards. Unfortunately, she gets little resistance. Rhodes is charming, but does not know how to give his moderately developed character any depth. You have forgotten many other actors as soon as they walk out of the screen and for Hedlund there is no credit to be gained in a role that is so superficial and one-sided that it makes you sad.

‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ isn’t the best movie Lee Daniels has ever made. The illustrious jazz singer deserved a better film to honor her life and work. Fortunately, an excellent biographical film was made in 1972 (‘The Lady Sings the Blues’) starring Diana Ross. The theme of racism remains urgent, but could have been more subtly woven into Holiday’s life story. Though subtlety isn’t necessarily Daniels’ forte, of course.

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