Truth and Movies

The United States vs Billie Holiday

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Lee Daniels

Starring

Andra Day Garrett Hedlund Trevante Rhodes

Anticipation.

The return of Lee Daniels with something a little more sober.

Enjoyment.

Andra Day is astonishing, but this unwieldy film lets her down.

In Retrospect.

Respect the ambition, but just doesn’t quite land.

A star is born in Andra Day, the phenomenal lead of Lee Daniels’ ponderous and overlong musical biopic.

Attempts are being made to both have and eat cake in Lee Daniels’ sometimes sumptuous, often laborious, occasionally nerve-tingling biopic, The United States vs Billie Holiday. It may not look like it, but this is a cut and shunt movie, where two separate chassis have been fused together and then inelegantly hidden under a pretty paint job.

One is a linear account of the tragic life and career of postwar jazz chanteuse Billie Holiday, played with a heady surfeit of gusto and verve by Andra Day. The other is a miss-cued take on the state-sponsored racial oppression instigated by the FBI with the intention of helping Black folks in America to not get too greedy in the light of any newly-won freedoms.

These two chunks of the movie struggle for narrative dominance, and there’s never a point where they achieve a satisfying synchronicity. We always have a little bit of Holiday’s life as an artist, followed by an episode regarding the federal pincer-movements to keep her out of the public eye. The reason that she became the subject of such intense persecution was down to the fact that the song ‘Strange Fruit’ was not only a regular in her live repertoire, but was fast becoming a hit across America.

Indeed, there were those who would flock to her concerts just to hear this haunting torch ballad whose lyrics paint a desolate and vivid picture in the wake of a southern lynching. For the FBI, it was seen as having powder-keg potential – a reminder of white atrocities that had yet to recede into the past.

Garrett Hedlund’s Harry Anslinger is the man on a mission to take down Holiday by hook or by crook, and knowing he’s got nothing on her for subversive political poetry, decides instead to zero in on her leisure-hours drug dependency. She’s criminalised for her dressing room antics, and despite her defiance in the face of various legal and health pressures, her career (and, indeed, life) is cut drastically short.

If the film achieves any sense of emotional acuity it’s through Day’s skulking, tornado-like performance that manages to capture Holiday as a confused, changeable, charismatic and forthright songbird who constantly overcame wide odds, only to be met with a host of new troubles.

For Daniels, this is perhaps his most mature and restrained film, and contains a number of passages where the stylistic flourishes coalesce into something truly magical, namely a central nightclub performance which captures ‘Strange Fruit’ in a single, goose bump-inducing take. There are moments where you might even compare the film favourably to Pedro Almodóvar at his most opulently romantic (there was a time, incidentally, when Almodovar was set to make Daniels’ disastrous kitsch thriller, The Paperboy), but Daniels is left stranded by Suzan-Lori Parks’ awkwardly segmented script which lacks for a satisfying dramatic through-line, even if there are lone episodes that work well in isolation.

Another element to the mix is the presence of Trevante Rhodes’ Jimmy Fletcher, a greenhorn FBI enforcer who is selected to inveigle his way into Holiday’s inner circle as a spy and report back on anything that’s actionable. Initially he is loyal to the badge, but soon realises he’s being taken for a dupe and allows his true feelings for Holiday to take hold, and the realisation of their affair, and the constant shift in power dynamics as to who has the moral upper hand, is certainly one of the more appealing aspects of this wayward production.

Yet you’re constantly made to feel conscious of the fact that this story is being told with blunt allegorical intent, to work merely as a historical illustration of the injustice and brutality suffered by Black people within the American legal system. Holiday’s life is sold down the river somewhat at the service of a journalistic tirade that sorely lacks for nuance and a clear focus.

Published 1 Mar 2021

Tags: Andra Day Billie Holiday Garrett Hedlund Lee Daniels Trevante Rhodes

Anticipation.

The return of Lee Daniels with something a little more sober.

Enjoyment.

Andra Day is astonishing, but this unwieldy film lets her down.

In Retrospect.

Respect the ambition, but just doesn’t quite land.

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