The United States vs. Billie Holiday
A very disoriented performance is somewhat anchored by a spectacular lead performance
It is hard to have a good eye for discovering talent; usually a director might strike lucky with a first time actor once or twice in their career, but the streak that Lee Daniels has demonstrated throughout his career has turned into an admirable skill. Since his breakout film Precious (2009), Daniels has been giving opportunities to obscure actors who have burst into the mainstream scene later. After a seven year hiatus, however, Daniels has returned to the filmic medium with The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021), bringing with him yet another spectacular talent discovery.
The Unites States vs. Billie Holiday is a biopic of the famous mid-century singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day). The film focuses on her trajectory from 1947 until her death. We see how the Unites States government and their anti-narcotics division was weaponized against her, in order to prevent her from singing her anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit.” This inadvertently led her down a path of further harassment, insecurities, and inevitably drug abuse.
Daniels and his directing style have become very different from his indie roots, his Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) proved satisfying, but seemed to angle itself too much to mainstream audiences and lost its character work on the way. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is even further from Daniels’ best work, becoming a mesh and disoriented jumble in terms of style, tone, rhythm, and plot.
One of the biggest issues with The United States vs. Billie Holiday is its lack of a coherent thread or purpose with its story. The title seems to suggest a perspective into the systemic governmental undermining of the singer, but the instances shown in the film are presented in a summarizing manner, with Daniels not focusing on the central conflict and the perspectives of both sides. The fear that the government had on the popularity of “Strange Fruit” is a brilliant and powerful example of the power that activism and art can have on the world, but not such exploration or position is provided in the film. Instead our government officials simply oppose the song because they are “evil” and twirl their imaginary moustaches.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is extremely muddled regarding the crafting of Billie Holiday’s character as well. The plot seems to be framed by an interview that Holiday gave in 1957, but this is rarely revisited during the runtime and is abandoned/forgotten by the end. There is also a mix of various montages of her singing that seem to indicate to her business and prowess, but Daniels never digs or questions why she was a star. Finally there is the stylistic and tonal choices from Daniels, who mixes newspaper clippings and switching scenes into grainy black and white for no reason. This then clashes when Daniels decides to introduce surrealism to explore Holiday’s past and her drug use. Is Daniels trying to center his story on fact and history or bring us a boozy dreamlike journey? The indecisiveness is a clash of style and horrible editing, which makes the entire film seem like a string of moments in Holiday’s life that confuses viewers and provide no insight.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is largely saved by first-time actress and Grammy nominee Andra Day in the lead role. Day breaks through onto the screen as if she were a decades-old performer. For the interpretation of someone famous, performers toe a fine line between inhabitation and imitation. Performers with a tighter grasp on their craft will decide to focus on character, not recreating look or sound; less-experienced performers, however, disguise their lack of character work by playing up imitation. Rarely can a performer do both, but Day provides an absolutely sweeping reincarnation of Holiday, from the slight scratchiness of her voice, to a full array of her vulnerabilities. It is a performance that is a delight to watch, and signals the birth of a new star in acting.
Day elevates The United States vs. Billie Holiday and provides a depth and trajectory to her character that the film completely fails to provide. This both makes her performance all the more impressive, while also frustrating viewers who notice she wasn’t given a better environment to work with. This lack of support can be seen in the shallowly written characters, who remain caricatures throughout the film. Only Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an FBI informer who betrays Holiday, has some semblance of a character, but he is watered down by an uncomfortable and timid performance from Rhodes, who seems to be completely lost in how to interpret such a complex and conflicted character. Rhodes is especially left in the dust when regarding an inevitable comparison with the successful crafting of a very similar character in Judas and the Black Messiah (2021).
In the end, The United States vs. Billie Holiday proves to be a greatly disappointing film from Lee Daniels. It is an absolute mess structurally, tonally, and stylistically; only Day and her performance salvage a sense of depth and watchability from the story of such an important and tragic historical character.