The United States vs. Billie Holiday

When prohibition ended, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund, “Mudbound,” “Burden”) became the Commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.  He was a notorious racist, outraged that blues singer Billie Holiday (singer Andra Day) was ‘causing trouble’ by bringing public attention to the horrors of lynching by singing ‘Strange Fruit.’  Although he got to both her white manager Joe Glaser (Dusan Dukic) and even her husband, Billie was defiant and kept singing the song, so Anslinger went after her on drug charges instead in “The United States vs Billie Holiday.”

Laura's Review: B-

1972 gave us Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues,” a film I mostly remember for Ross’s tortured portrayal of addiction and withdrawal within a clichéd biopic.  Director Lee Daniels ("Precious") takes the more modern approach to biographical movies by focusing on a particular stage of a person’s life, in this case writers Johann Hari’s and "Girl 6's" Suzan-Lori Parks’ account of her last few years being dogged by the F.B.I. 

Daniels broadens the scope a bit with an outstanding opening credits sequence which informs us that the Senate ‘considered’ an anti-lynching bill in 1937 but failed to pass it (something which happened *again* during the Trump administration’s Republican led Senate) while showing us distressing still photographs of lynchings’ aftermaths.  The screenplay, too, fills in a little of Holiday’s earlier years during a heroin high shared with her lover, undercover F.B.I. agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes, "Moonlight").  But if “Lady Sings the Blues” illustrated Holiday’s struggle with drugs, this latest soft pedals it, instead succeeding in giving us more of an understanding of the why of the addiction.  Andra Day, who both looks and sounds more like Holiday than Ross, is outstanding in her debut, but the film itself lacks focus, shooting off in too many directions with too many players.

Take the opening scene, for example, in which we witness a 1957 interview with Lord Reginald Divine (Leslie Jordan, TV’s ‘Will & Grace,’ ‘Call Me Kat’), never to hear from him again (nor understand his relevance).  After asking the jaw droppingly rude ‘What’s it like to be a colored woman?,’ he follows up with ‘Why do you keep singing that song?,’ calling her a troublemaker.  ‘Ever seen a lynching?’ Billie replies (while we just have in those opening photographs, it will be a while before we witness Holiday’s wrenching experience).

Daniels cross cuts between scenes of Billie and her entourage and the F.B.I., Fletcher presented as an anti-drug crusader whose mother is appalled he’s going after Holiday.  Nothing about this part of the story really resonates, Rhodes failing to communicate his character’s complex and changing feelings about the woman he’s tasked with destroying.  Better are Billie’s scenes dealing with police, the courts and prison.

Better still are all the scenes of Holiday performing, Day absolutely magical conjuring up Lady Day herself – she’ll send shivers up your spine.  Daniels frequently uses crosscutting montages during these performances, giving us brief glimpses of Holiday nodding out post-show.  We see the rebel crusading against the horrors of racism confronting the everyday kind when a Black elevator operator refers her to the hotel’s freight elevator, one of the few scenes featuring a horribly miscast Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, a rumored lover.  There are so many hangers-on, none save “Detroit’s” Tyler James Williams as her band member and best friend Lester Young make a lasting impression – we get a better sense of her beloved dogs.

Billie Holiday was used and abused by those around her and the drug arrests robbed her of her cabaret license, hobbling her ability to make a living.  After a newsreel style montage gives us Paris, we do get the triumphant Carnegie Hall appearance, but the film’s highlight features Andra Day singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in an empty theater, Daniels employing close-ups to wondrous effect.  The film’s production is serviceable, but hair, makeup and costume are all award worthy standouts.

Robin's Review: B+

In 1939, jazz singer Billie Holiday performed the song "Strange Fruit" about the lynching of black men and women in the segregated south. Though written by a white Russian Jewish immigrant school teacher named Abel Meeropol, the song earned Billie the ire of the feds as "inciting  racial tension" and, because of her drug addiction, she came under the scrutiny and decades-long harassment of the Bureau of Narcotics under Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."

My dad was a huge jazz fan his entire life and, in the 1950s, he introduced Lady Day and her marvelous voice and song to me and I have been a big fan ever since – Billie plays prominent on my dementia play list. So, I was both excited and concerned about "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" and how the lady would be shown. Then, Andra Day begins to sing and Billie Holiday came to life on the screen.

The film, by Lee Daniels, is based on a profile of Billie in journalist Johann Hari's "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs" and the screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks. The story begins with a US Senate hearing to "consider" enacting a law to ban lynching. It did not pass. (Ironically, remember, just last year, the Republican-controlled US Senate held a hearing to "consider" banning lynching. It, too, did not pass.)

We are introduced to Billie and The Song and that is when things kick in on what is a finely produced and cast period story that is a remarkable showcase for Andra Day and her believable performance as Billie – in voice, character, costume, makeup and hair. From the moment Day appears on screen, she envelops the jazz singer's every move.

While Andra Day's performance is mesmerizing from start to finish – much like Renee Zellwegger in "Judy" in 2019 – the fine ensemble cast fill out both the drama and the history of Holiday and the decades-long controversy dredged up by the feds.

Though the controversy over "Strange Fruit" and the US government campaign against her addiction to drugs as the basis of harassment of Holiday, there is a love story buried under the weightier subjects depicted. FBI undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), posing as a reporter, is assigned to shadow Billie and gain her confidence. This part, though reportedly true, felt tacked on to the main topics but serves to give Billie more dimension than just a political figure or famous chanteuse.

I know I am biased but Andra Day, even when compared against award-worthy performances (and there are several, like Michelle Pfeiffer, Elisabeth Moss and Kate Winslet), presents the whole package of talent, chemistry and charisma. If you are familiar with Billie's voice, you believe in Day's authenticity of her portrayal.

"The United States vs. Billie Holiday" premieres on Hulu on 2/26/2021.