Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday By Lee Daniels
Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit,” about the horrors of a lynching and the feelings it evokes, is at the core of Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday. The film, which boasts an electrifying performance by Andra Day as the iconic jazz singer, has gorgeous, masterful moments that uplift the generally weak material. However, the film is overly long, dragging out its story unnecessarily, with Daniels haphazardly shifting focus away from Holiday constantly. The film is unbalanced, generally failing to center on the song driving the story while romanticizing an affair between Holiday and a FBN agent.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday follows Holiday (Day), born Eleanora Fagan, in the late 1940s. After singing the song “Strange Fruit” at several cabarets and venues, she begins being tracked by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics under the guise of drug abuse. FBN leader, Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), a racist who obviously wants to maintain the white supremacist system, sends a Black FBN agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), to pose as a soldier and a fan of Holiday’s music in a bid to earn her trust before betraying her. In addition to being stalked at every turn, Holiday continues performing under duress, struggling to earn income after her drug arrest strips the singer of her New York City cabaret card, which permitted her and her band to perform in nightclubs. Daniels intersperses the film with scenes set in the past and the future, ones that are meant to delineate Holiday’s childhood and the time ahead of her tragic death at the age of 44.
Day is a revelation. Her portrayal of Holiday is magnetic, layered with an underlying sadness, controlled anger, and perseverance that is all-encompassing and emotionally rich. When Day takes to the stage as the jazz singer, she has command of her performance and as much of an electric presence as Holiday once did, lighting up the room with her voice and signature flower pins, all while inviting the audience into her space as she sings about love, life, and the Black experience in Jim Crow America. There’s a weary burden that Day showcases in her movements as Holiday that reveals so much — the exhaustion of being followed, the lack of freedom she feels, the tension permeating the atmosphere is all glimpsed in the actress’ body language. It’s a shame that her outstanding performance is right in the middle of a film that is not very interested in Holiday as a person.
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Holiday always understood the power of “Strange Fruit” and why it was the real reason the FBN came after her. And yet, The United States vs. Billie Holiday refuses to engage with the song or its lyrics. Even when the singer performs at Carnegie Hall, an event that drew the attendance of the feds, Daniels avoids using the song despite the fact that Holiday did sing it that night. To be sure, the fact that Holiday never sings the song onscreen at all is a blatant oversight and a misdirect of the real-life events that inspired the film to begin with. Why not play the song instead of relying on text to convey its importance to the audience? It’s a disservice to the story and to Holiday’s own life and legacy, something which the film struggles to properly convey or honor. Even Holiday’s relationship with actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) is but a blip on the radar, with only strong hints to suggest there is more between them than mere friendship.
Honestly, their relationship is indicative of the entire film, which teases more than a surface-level exploration of an icon without ever delivering on its promise of more. It’s not like there isn’t time to delve deeper, either, with the film’s runtime stretching beyond the two-hour mark. Rather, the length of the film gets to be tedious, as though watching a too-slow train pull into the station. A lot of this tedium stems from the inclusion and the unnecessarily large role Anslinger and his FBN agents play in the narrative. Their presence is meant to build the tension, but it also stalls the film’s focus on Holiday. What’s more, the prominence of Jimmy Fletcher, especially in the latter half of the film, shifts the story to his affair with Holiday. Daniels and writer Suzan-Lori Parks lean into this relationship without contending with the issues that stem from Jimmy’s ties to the FBN and their work in upholding systemic racism. Sure, there are instances in which he feels guilty, but it’s not enough and the film romanticizes his relationship with Holiday in a way that becomes uncomfortable despite Rhodes and Day’s sizzling chemistry.
All that said, Andrew Dunn’s cinematography is entrancingly beautiful, occasionally shifting scenes from their strikingly colorful palette to grainy black and white in a way that is organic and seamless. Everything from the costume design to the set production is phenomenal, with Day’s performance, engaging and masterful in its strength, being the film’s standout. Regardless of these strengths, however, The United States vs. Billie Holiday has too many moving parts that don’t come together cohesively. Holiday herself is more or less a plot device in a film that is meant to be about her. The power of the cast can’t overshadow the film’s struggle to maintain its focus on “Strange Fruit,” its effect and lasting impact, and the woman who risked everything to ensure she kept singing it.