REVIEW: The United States vs. Billie Holiday [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 130 minutes
    Release Date: February 26th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Hulu
    Director(s): Lee Daniels
    Writer(s): Suzan-Lori Parks / Johann Hari (book Chasing the Scream)

It’s about human rights.

I think a lot of what’s proven to be a lukewarm response to Lee DanielsThe United States vs. Billie Holiday can be understood upon discovering that this biopic about one of our country’s greatest singers was based on an English journalist’s book about the historical context and lasting impact of America’s “War on Drugs.” That right there shows that this film isn’t going to really be about Billie Holiday. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering how much damage Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics caused her, it does ensure that the journey on-screen often comes across as being about everything but her. For a large portion of its duration, I honestly believed she had become a supporting character inside her own story.

This reality seems unavoidable in hindsight considering Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks‘ screenplay is built from just one piece of author Johann Hari‘s much larger forensic puzzle. Holiday (Andra Day) was but one example utilized to shed light on the government’s overreach and penchant for using a very visible “war” to fight other battles that men like Anslinger were forced to wage in secret. To therefore flip the focus and turn the camera onto her isn’t so easy. Parks does her best by using a hostile retrospective interview at Reginald Lord Devine’s (Leslie Jordan) microphone to serve as our tour guide through the tumult, but even she can’t prevent her subject from becoming a victim so Mr. Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) can be reborn a hero.

He is thus our entry point—a Black man working undercover with Anslinger’s (Garrett Hedlund) department to target high profile Black artists under the pretense that they might be squeezed tight enough to rat out “suppliers”. Fletcher is the man walking that line between justice and compassion who tells himself that his orders come from a place of honesty when reality proves it’s all a ruse to keep minorities under America’s white supremacist thumb. So he admires who Holiday is and what she does as he works to destroy her. He believes that arresting her and putting her in jail is the best course of action if for no other reason than the time might help her get clean from heroin. But he doesn’t yet know her pain.

How could he being the son of a wealthy undertaker with enough money to do whatever he wanted? How could he when he sees what drugs are doing to his people through the very white lens of abuse and weakness rather than acknowledging the suffering those narcotics numb that was spawned by an authority that still goes out of its way to lynch with impunity? Does Billie Holiday therefore evolve during the course of this film? Or does who she is and what she’s endured help Jimmy evolve instead? Parks and Daniels would have been better off admitting he was their real star because it’s only when he’s on-screen that we become invested in what might transpire. Holiday is merely the constant his growth depends on.

What then do we get when he’s missing? There’s Billie descending into her never-ending cycle of self-hate that stems from childhood trauma and a violent relationship with love. There’s her close confidantes Roslyn (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence) trying their best to keep her on the straight and narrow even if the latter isn’t averse to joining her drug-fueled escapades regardless. We meet the band members who would do anything for her if only she’d return the favor (Tyler James Williams‘ Lester Young), the abusive husbands (Erik LaRay Harvey‘s James Monroe and Rob Morgan‘s Louis McKay), and the audiences that never waver in their support even as Ainslinger works to smear her reputation at every turn. It’s the same old rock-n-roll yarn we’ve seen before.

To the recently Oscar-nominated Andra Day’s credit, however, her performance does prove compelling enough for us to forgive what’s been written as a shallow role in service of another. She’s so good that we forget the highs and lows are part of a repetitious roller coaster of which we cannot get off. The scenes she shares with Natasha Lyonne‘s Tallulah Bankhead add very little to the narrative, but their inclusion as a means to highlight the prejudice against her by the same people who buy her records still stands out. And her complicated relationship with Jimmy electrifies too thanks to her ability to render that complexity with authenticity even as those around her warn it will be hazardous to her health. Day makes us believe all of it.

So does Rhodes for that matter. He’s very good in what ends up being the meatiest role of them all thanks to Parks allowing him the room to learn from his mistakes and recognize his complicity in Uncle Sam’s war on Black America. Watching him interact with his bosses and co-workers during the day only to legitimately be enjoying himself in Holiday’s crowd at night illustrates the vast chasm between actions and intent. Hearing Evan Ross‘ Agent Williams question what it was their department was doing to the Black community in Ainslinger’s name rather than their own might be the most profound moment of introspection we get—especially considering where he and Jimmy go by the end. It really is all about the government’s nefarious means of oppression.

That the filmmaking leaves something to be desired along with the script’s split focus only exacerbates The United States vs. Billie Holiday‘s flaws, but for every boring bit of generic drama arrives a glimpse at greatness. Daniels outdoes himself with a powerful long take towards the end that leads us from the aftermath of a lynching through the victim’s house and onto the next show’s stage to finally let us hear “Strange Fruit” in full. We receive the pain, sorrow, drugs, love, and pride that’s been scattered throughout in one masterful stroke that won’t leave us even as the rest of the film does. It won’t be enough to save it for some, but those daggers of truth make it hard for me to simply disregard the whole.

[1] Andra Day stars in THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Takashi Seida.
[2] Lester ‘Prez’ Young (Tyler James Williams), shown. (Photo by: Takashi Seida/Hulu)
[3] Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) and Billie Holiday (Andra Day), shown. (Photo by: Takashi Seida/Hulu)

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