Movie Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday
CONTENT WARNING: This film contains many scenes of violent physical abuse.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is about jazz musician Billie Holiday and her struggles with heroin addiction. In the midst of her fame she also produces the song "Strange Fruit," which is about the epidemic of vigilante lynchings in the United States. The federal agents can't prosecute her for the song, but they keep trying to make her drug charges stick in order to find out who is supplying the drugs and to ultimately stop her from singing "Strange Fruit" in public. The film stars Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Erik LaRey Harvey, Tyler James Williams, Melvin Gregg, Evan Ross, Tone Bell, and Rob Morgan. The film is directed by Lee Daniels and is written by Suzan-Lori Parks. The film is streaming exclusively on Hulu.
Two weeks ago I wrote about a biopic, Judas and the Black Messiah, in which the filmmakers pulled focus in two different directions. The United States vs. Billie Holiday splits its time between a very interesting Billie Holiday and a very uninteresting federal agent named Jimmy Fletcher who had a years long affair with Holiday. Just like in Judas and the Black Messiah, the device of the narc falls flat because there is no attention actually given to what makes this man unique or motivated beyond the shallow reasons presented.
The whole film is pretty shallow. There's a framing device at the beginning, one a viewer would suspect would be more important, but falls off the radar nearly right away. This framing device could have actually given depth to what the movie purports to be about. As interviewer Reginald Lord Devine displays incredible ignorance and causes microaggression that if handled better could have been the point to come back to in order to show the lengths people go to in denial of white supremacy.
Yet, Lee Daniels, as a filmmaker, is far more comfortable within the DRAMA of it all. The film forgets its important message more often than not in favor of the tawdry and the scandal. Why have a scene in which Roy Cohn smirks playfully at a senator and minces to his seat? Why have several short and ultimately inconsequential scenes about Tallulah Bankhead and Billie Holiday's purported affairs? Why have multiple scenes of Holiday being abused by her husbands and lovers? Why have scene after scene of Holiday and friends shooting up? Why have multiple scenes of Holiday nude, that are entirely exploitative and mostly unnecessary? Because melodrama and seediness are what keeps the audience interested.
I wish that the filmmakers had stuck hard to the very real devious, destructive and racist witch hunt that the FBI perpetrated. There are ways to show the multiple facets of a persons life, the gray amidst the black and white, that aren't entirely damning of that person and their entire cause or the noble efforts they used their fame to support. There are ways to do this, but the filmmakers chose to ignore it until it could be inserted into the narrative they created around the more exciting aspects of Billie Holiday's life.
When we are finally given a performance of "Strange Fruit," the build up is worth it. Andra Day as Holiday pours her heart into the song and it's a powerful scene in a close up of Day's face matched with the audience reaction. Though, this scene wouldn't work without the preceding scene, which I couldn't figure out if it was all reality or mixed with a dream sequence... Regardless it's a staggering juxtaposition in the film. Holiday in her revelry on the tour bus gets out to make a pit stop in a field when she hears something not too far away. She walks into the field and sees the burning cross in front of the smoldering ashes of a sharecropper's house, then she sees the furniture saved from the blaze, the children weeping and wailing, and then the husband desperately trying to cut down his wife who hangs from a tree with a sign around her that reads, "justis served" (sic). Holiday runs into an adjacent building and is met with immediate relief by her pusher, who has her shot of heroin ready for her as she weeps for the scene just outside.
This scene is dizzying and imaginative and makes me wish the film had challenged itself with more of this conflict within Holiday and her persona. Yet, Daniels is a sensationalist and revels in camp. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a mess of affected styles and montages. It's a film that desperately wants to tell a story with a message, but falls flat in every way possible. I don't recommend this film. I recommend you listen to "Strange Fruit" and then think about the final title cards to this film which state that there is still no federal anti-lynching law on the books today and the most recent bill up for vote is still only in consideration.