Early on in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, two fans from Baltimore on a trip to the big city, visit backstage at Cafe Society with the legendary singer (Andra Day in a star making debut performance). There’s wonder in the small talk they share, the awe they show her. She invites them to sip champagne and everyone in the room – including her entourage of husband-manger, dresser and assistant – talk about where in Baltimore they are from. We get to know what Holiday meant to Black people in America at that time; the late 1940s. And we know that she understood that and took her responsibility seriously. I smiled and settled in thinking “this is gonna be good.” Biopics rarely examine why celebrities mean so much to us. Alas it was not to be. That was it about Holiday’s giant place in Black people’s hearts in this country.
A good biopic is usually one that has a few revelatory insights about the life it’s trying to depict. Or is telling the story of a particularly interesting moment in that life. Cradle to grave biopics don’t work and filmmakers have mostly stopped making those. Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks – adapting the book by Johann Hari – have that particular story they want to tell. They chose the time in Holiday’s life when the FBI was trying to frame her for narcotics because they couldn’t stop her singing the wrenching ballad Strange Fruit. That song tells the story of a lynching in vivid detail and was a rallying cry for Black people fighting for equality at that time.
Unfortunately choosing to tell this story means that the film spends a lot of its running time focusing on Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an undercover FBI agent who framed Holiday and eventually fell in love with her. The way they carried on their affair while Holiday was touring America and trying to kick her heroin addiction could’ve made for an interesting film. But the love affair doesn’t hold the audience’s attention. We never understand why Holiday liked Fletcher, except perhaps because he lookes like Rhodes. But there’s no heat. There’s more heat in Day’s scenes with Tone Bell who plays her abusive manager / boyfriend Joe Levy.
This is such a disservice to Day who gives a wondrous and fully committed performance. Lowering her voice to mimic Holiday’s gravely talking voice and changing her singing register to perform the songs, she’s never anything less than mesmerizing. Whether she’s on stage as Holiday singing or showing us the toll of heroin and abuse on her body, she knocks it out of the park. This is one of those instances when a first time actor finds a role that fits them like a glove and immediately becomes a star with the promise of years of spellbinding performances.
In choosing to center their story around Strange Fruit, Daniels and Parks know they need to withhold the song until just the right moment. However by the time we get there we have seen so many repetitively staged and edited scenes of Holiday singing that it loses some of its heft. Still Day delivers it beautifully and ensures it doesn’t lose any of its allure giving us a moving and enthralling moment. The song is preceded by a long winding scene in which a crane camera follows Day around through the big moments from Holiday’s life that led her to Strange Fruit. It’s brilliant and I loved it and snapped to attention recognizing this as a Lee Daniels film.
Daniels is a true auteur. There’s no mistaking his recognizable stamp on any film he makes. His filmmaking thrives in chaos. You’d think a story this sweeping, a personality this hypnotizing will play to his strengths. Instead of the enthralling chaos he gave us in Precious (2009) The Paperboy (2012) or even The Butler (2013) what we get here is haphazard storytelling. Only once in a while – like the scene mentioned above – does his brilliant chaotic filmmaking appear. Some scenes are strong, some are casually tossed off as if no director was present. Day is out of this world great but some of the other performances, from good actors with proven records – Rhodes and Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead – feel like their worst takes made it to the finished film. While others – particularly Miss Lawrence and Da’Vine Joy Randolph – benefit from playing opposite Day and conjure easy rapport with her, elevating their scenes.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday has talent with pedigree behind it and a fascinating icon at its center, but the result is not up to par. Still I wholeheartedly recommend it because Day’s performance needs to be seen and cherished.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday will stream on Hulu starting Friday February 26th.
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