The United States vs. Billie Holiday
- Emma Simmonds
- 22 February 2021
Singer Andra Day is a revelation as the titular icon in Lee Daniels' gorgeous but faltering biopic
'What is the government's problem with Billie Holiday?' an elderly white interviewer (Leslie Jordan) asks the icon in question, oblivious to the racism that has beset her life. In a film that's set predominantly from 1947 onwards, but that flashes back to Holiday's unhappy childhood, director Lee Daniels (The Paperboy, Precious) shines a light on the singer's persecution by the Federal Department of Narcotics, and highlights the role her provocative, lynching-themed track 'Strange Fruit' – which would would later become Time magazine's song of the century – had in fuelling the authorities' hatred.
It's stirring subject matter but the crude, sometimes woozy, frequently muddled approach undermines its righteous intentions. Nevertheless, singer Andra Day (best known for her song 'Rise Up') gives a beautifully judged turn as Billie in her first major role, convincingly inhabiting this chaotic but desperately vulnerable character and nailing her unique vocal style and mannerisms. If her performance doesn't have a lot of room to breathe, as Daniels goes heavy on the dissolves and impatiently flits from one moment to the next, Day makes each second of her screen-time matter.
The effortlessly charismatic Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) plays morally upstanding Black federal agent Jimmy Fletcher, whose desire to rid his community of drugs clouds his judgement, and who allows himself to be manipulated by Garrett Hedlund's bureau chief Harry Anslinger into bringing Holiday down. Portrayed as a virulent racist, Anslinger sees Holiday singing 'Strange Fruit' as a threat to the desperately unjust status quo, believing she has the power to win Black hearts and minds. She is not allowed to include the song on her set-lists anywhere, with police lining the halls at some of her most popular gigs, and when she tries to sing it she is hauled off stage.
Despite its structural flaws and frustrations and the often clangingly on-the-nose dialogue from Suzan-Lori Parks – fired-up but distractingly unnatural – The United States vs. Billie Holiday is strikingly gorgeous, from Andrew Dunn's sumptuous cinematography to Daniel T Dorrance and Paolo Nieddu's glorious production and costume design. It's very sympathetic to the hardships Holiday suffered and takes great pride in the way she rose up regardless – while that a star could be treated so shabbily remains shocking. Billie no doubt deserves a more finessed treatment of her fraught and eventful story, but Day at least does her justice.
Available to watch on Sky Cinema from Sat 27 Feb.