Directed by: Lee Daniels
Premise: Based on true events. Jazz singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day) is pursed by the FBI because she keeps performing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” A black federal agent (Trevante Rhodes) gets close to Holiday but has reservations about the case against her.
What Works: There has been a surge of musical dramas in recent years, resulting in biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. A lot of these films have been apologetics, portraying their subjects with a sympathetic eye and polishing off the rougher edges of the musician’s lives. To its credit, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is not a hagiography. As portrayed here, Billie Holiday was a difficult and complex person who struggled with substance abuse. The greatest strength of The United State vs. Billie Holiday is Andra Day’s performance in the title role. Day throws herself into the role and she performs the songs, conveying Holiday’s stage presence. Holiday’s past traumas and the fear of legal prosecution haunt Day’s performance, giving a sense of this woman’s tumultuous internal life.
What Doesn’t: The United States vs. Billie Holiday is highly fictionalized. It is true that the FBI went after Holiday because of her insistence upon performing “Strange Fruit” and she was prosecuted for drug possession. But the filmmakers also take many liberties with Holiday’s life, namely her relationship with FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher, played by Trevante Rhodes. Fictionalizing their relationship isn’t necessarily a problem; dramatizations necessarily have to embellish and invent for the sake of storytelling. But the relationship between Holiday and Fletcher isn’t convincing. It comes across forced and starts and stops abruptly. That flaw is shared by much of the rest of the film. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is dramatically flat. Holiday is arrested and sentenced in the early portion of the film and there is a little sense of escalation. The story intends to frame Billie Holiday as a civil rights hero but that’s not really evident in the film. She’s pursued by federal agents but the film does little to realize what “Strange Fruit” meant to the audience or to the civil rights movement. The picture also does a mediocre job portraying its characters. Billie Holiday comes across as a miserable person and a drug addict and little else. The film offers little insight into her musicianship and what these songs meant to her. Even worse is the characterization of Jimmy Fletcher. He’s a cipher of a character and his inner conflict is entirely superficial.
DVD extras: Currently available on Hulu.
Bottom Line: The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a disappointing film. Andra Day’s central performance is committed but the film doesn’t reveal anything about Billie Holiday or her conflict with the government. The subject is compelling but the filmmakers make lousy choices in presenting it.
Episode: #846 (April 4, 2021)