'The United States vs. Billie Holiday': Film Review

Andra Day in 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday.'
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Andra Day in 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday.'

Giddy diva worship.
2/26/2021

Andra Day burns up the screen in her first leading role in Lee Daniels' bio-drama chronicling the FBI's unabated persecution of the immortal jazz singer.

In an uncanny instance of art mirroring life, two major Hollywood movies will premiere just weeks apart, both of which depict relentless campaigns by American government intelligence agencies to silence influential Black voices. They follow closely after an impeachment trial in which the majority of GOP senators showed their complicity in violence from white supremacist groups by voting to acquit the Instigator in Chief. That packs scalding heat into the simultaneous arrival of Judas and the Black Messiah and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and should draw attention when the latter drops on Hulu, where it landed after the pandemic scuttled Paramount's release plans.

Andra Day gives a dazzling star turn in her first leading role, which establishes her as a screen natural with effortless command. She captures the bruising pain of the great jazz singer's life onstage and off — not to mention the smoky vocals, the supple phrasing and intimate musical storytelling that made Holiday such a legendary talent.

Day mesmerizes even when Lee Daniels' unwieldy bio-drama careens all over the map with stylistic inconsistency and narrative dysfunction, settling for episodic electricity in the absence of a robust connective thread. It's a mess, albeit an absorbing one, driven by a raw central performance of blistering indignation, both tough and vulnerable. Coaxing gritty, fully inhabited work from relatively inexperienced screen actors is arguably Daniels' main strength as a director.

Previous biographical treatments of Holiday — among them the 1972 Diana Ross vehicle, Lady Sings the Blues; the 2016 play adaptation, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill; and 2019's documentary feature Billie — have shed light on her harrowing childhood experiences of sexual predation and her consequent evolution into a punishing cycle of addiction and relationships with abusive, exploitative men.

Daniels shifts the narrative to focus more squarely on Holiday's significance as a pivotal figure in the racialization of the FBI's war on drugs. Screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks' principal source material was a section of British journalist Johann Hari's 2015 book, Chasing the Scream, a history of the criminalization of narcotics and its impact, which places Holiday at the birth of the anti-drug crusade. As recounted here, this was largely a smoke-screen to cover for repeated failed attempts to stop her performing one of her signature songs, "Strange Fruit," a haunting lament for the Black Americans lynched in the South. The song was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx whose students had included James Baldwin.

Parks is a brilliant writer known for stage work (she won a Pulitzer for Topdog/Underdog) that dips into the volatile rhythms, repetitions and free-flowing riffs of jazz for inspiration, which would make her seem an ideal fit for the subject. But the combination of the writer's theatricality with Daniels' taste for woozy excess more often serves as a distraction from the blistering sorrow of Holiday's story and the raw commitment Day brings to the role.

The film's first hour gives a semi-coherent account of Holiday's highs and lows in the 1930s and '40s. But around the halfway point, the director really starts ladling in fussy stylistic flourishes — random B&W, slow-mo, jump cuts, shuffled chronology — that call attention to themselves rather than serve the story. This continues all the way through to the end credits, with a charming visual sabotaged by a jarring meta moment. If the intention was to show that Holiday remains a vital part of American cultural life six decades after her death, there had to be a less self-conscious way to convey that. And isn't that the job of the movie itself?

Neither Parks nor editor Jay Rabinowitz has succeeded in chiseling out a satisfying through-line — not the persecution by the Feds, not the contentious inclusion of "Strange Fruit" in her repertoire, and decidedly not the awkward frame that has Leslie Jordan, wearing what appears to be Bea Arthur's old hair, as a gossipy journalist interviewing Holiday in late '50s New York.

The sturdiest thread is Holiday's involvement with Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an ex-G.I. recruited by Federal Bureau of Narcotics Chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) to destroy the singer's career, a campaign championed by Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. Fletcher is a complicated Judas figure whose role lurches in and out of focus, like pretty much everything here. One of just nine Black FBI agents at the time, he works in the basement targeting his own people, reporting to a boss who makes no secret of his hatred for Black Americans and for jazz, which he calls "the devil's work."

Jimmy infiltrates Billie's inner circle and gains her trust before leading an arrest for heroin possession that lands her in prison for a year. It's Fletcher's well-heeled mother (Adriane Lenox, terrific) who first opens his eyes to the ways in which he's being manipulated and to the courage of Holiday in using her voice to expose horrific racial violence that the white establishment tacitly condones. After Billie serves her time, Anslinger presses Fletcher to prevent her from going back to work by blocking her New York cabaret license. Jimmy's remorse becomes increasingly clear as he warns her of the plot against her; he then falls in love with her while tailing her tour bus across the country.

One of Daniels' bigger swings in terms of departing from the conventional bio-drama mold is a scene in which Jimmy shoots up for the first time — effectively accompanied by Charlie Wilson's "The Devil and I Got Up to Dance a Slow Dance." (This is one of three original songs integrated with beautifully arranged standards and Kris Bowers' bluesy original score.)

The young Billie (Taryn Brown) takes Jimmy by the hand on a journey through her traumatic past, but even this device has no consistency. It starts out in a Harlem brothel that he views through the fog of a heroin high and then continues later as they step off the tour bus into the shocking scene of a backwoods lynching. The idea of reality pierced by the shards of memory makes sense but requires more discipline and far less choppy storytelling to pull it off.

One of the more affecting moments involves Billie stepping away from her relationship with Jimmy, basically telling him that his kind of tenderness is too unfamiliar for her to control, and reverting back to the slap-happy men to whom she's accustomed. It's a weakness, though, that these men are largely interchangeable — musicians, husbands, lovers, managers, often in the pocket of Anslinger and almost all of them betraying her in one way or another. That may legitimately be part of the point Daniels and Parks are trying to make, but it would have had more impact with greater character definition.

The introduction of Holiday's friend and occasional lover Tallulah Bankhead adds little to the retelling, and under-utilizes the always welcome presence of Natasha Lyonne in the role. She does figure in one important scene, however, involving access to a hotel elevator, which points up the humiliation for Holiday of being celebrated at Carnegie Hall but treated as an inferior in a country still strictly segregated.

The film summons more poignancy in casual observations of Billie chilling with her entourage, the most devoted of them played by Da'Vine Joy Randolph and Miss Lawrence. Not that we ever learn much about them, but the camaraderie of a raucous interlude on the tour bus is lovely in showing the safe haven of her friendship with a woman and a gay man compared to her rocky experiences with most men. And the later scenes showing her declining health, as cirrhosis of the liver ravaged her body in hospital while Anslinger's witch hunt continued to the bitter end, are undeniably moving.

There's plenty to quibble about in terms of their placement and editing, but the musical performances are the element that ultimately saves the wildly uneven movie. Day looks spectacular in Paolo Nieddu's stage gowns (the period production design and costuming throughout are impressively detailed) and she sounds intoxicating, creating a flirtatious complicity with the audience in one song and drifting into far-off introspection in another. The perky playfulness of "Ain't Nobody's Business" has a sharp double edge, with its lyrics expressing a willing female subjugation reflected in Holiday's own life.

But it's unquestionably a failing when the most visceral emotional gut punch of a biopic comes not in dramatic scenes but in the movie's postscript, revealing details of Holiday's death and illuminating footnotes against newsreel clips of her funeral. Perhaps the most sickening part of this epilogue concerns the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, which remains in limbo awaiting unanimous Senate approval more than 100 years after a version of it was first introduced.

Production companies: Lee Daniels Entertainment, Roth-Kirschenbaum Films
Distribution: Hulu
Cast: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Adriane Lenox, Natasha Lyonne, Rob Morgan, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Evan Ross, Tyler James Williams, Tone Bell, Blake DeLong, Dana Gourrier, Melvin Gregg, Erik LaRay Harvey, Ray Shell
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriter: Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the book
Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari
Producers: Lee Daniels, Jordan Fudge, Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Pamela Oas Williams, Tucker Tooley
Executive producers: Hilary Shor, Jeremy Allen, Johann Hari, Dennis Stratton, Mark Bomback, Patty Long, Cassian Elwes
Director of photography: Andrew Dunn
Production designer: Daniel T. Dorrance
Costume designer: Paolo Nieddu
Music: Kris Bowers
Editor: Jay Rabinowitz
Casting: Billy Hopkins, Leah Daniels-Butler, Ashley Ingram, Kevin Scott
130 minutes