If there is one thing that can be learned by The United States vs. Billie Holiday, it’s that the United States government did absolutely everything they could to destroy the career, reputation and life of the titular singer. If anything else can be learned, director Lee Daniels does have the coherent vision to express it.
Andra Day delivers a knockout performance as the singer, but the film suffers from wild tonal shifts, baffling editing and a scattershot script. There is a thoroughly interesting and entertaining film in here, but it isn’t this film.
The film follows Holiday from the peak of her powers in 1947 all the way through 1959. The commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Henry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), has it out for Holiday due to her performance of “Strange Fruit” – a powerful ballad about a lynching. Holiday doesn’t conform to the societal norms presented by singers of the time like Ella Fitzgerald. She is brash, vulgar, opinionated and uses a copious amount of drugs.
Anslinger tasks Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to go undercover and catch Holiday in the act. Fletcher gets close to the singer, who is shown to have questionable taste in men who are simultaneously her managers (Erik LaRay Harvey/Tone Bell/Rob Morgan).
The plot itself is difficult to explain due to not being much of a plot. Holiday is shown performing, doing drugs, having sex, being arrested, or discussing one of those topics. “Strange Fruit” is the lynchpin of the plot. Anslinger specifically mentions in a meeting with his superiors to stop her from singing the song. Her manager removes it from the set list in the next scene. At every concert, some patron (usually a white person) is yelling out for her to play it.
At the midway point, the film takes a detour into the surreal. While doing heroin, Holiday is suddenly in the middle of a field with Fletcher by her side. She comes upon a horrific scene of a lynching, which she runs from into a house out of nowhere. The rest of her friends show up to help her, but she pushes them away and turns to heroin. Fletcher obstructs the drug use and then she’s suddenly on stage, performing the song for the first time. The entire sequence felt out of place with the rest of the film, despite delivering a dynamite performance of the song by the star performer.
Day embodies Holiday with no regrets. Every decision she makes is shown to be her own and Holiday’s characterization is the only consistent thing about the film. Day also performs her own singing and embodies Holiday’s raspy style and sinks into the role. Day’s rawness as an actor improves as the film progresses as she gets more comfortable in the role. By the end of the film, Day knows exactly who Holiday is an steps up to each scene in a big way.
Everything else about the film is a mess. Plot points are started and abandoned. Characters are developed and set aside. Scenes shift from sex scenes to performances with no narrative reasoning. Day’s performance is so cultivated that every other performance in the film has to be set aside. Rhodes has the biggest role, but is saddled with nothing to do besides to be the “good” one of the men Holiday takes a liking to. Of all the supporting players, Rob Morgan is the only one who leans into the more lurid aspects of what is around him. Everyone else is taking everything too seriously, or not seriously enough.
Natasha Lyonne shows up as Tallulah Bankhead and is shown to be a sexual partner of Holiday. They have two small scenes about it then Holiday’s bisexuality is completely abandoned. Hedlund could have been replaced by a Garrett Hedlund mannequin and I wouldn’t have noticed. Da’vine Joy Randolph is along for the ride as an inexplicably eye-patched hanger-on of Holiday, but her character is never explained or understood. Tyler James Williams plays saxophone player Lester Young, but he just frowns a lot. Every character not named Billie Holiday is useless.
Daniels broke on to the scene with Precious in 2009, based in large part on the gritty realism and pulpiness of adapting a true story. While Precious opted for a smaller story, Holiday goes to big. Everything that occurs is significant and life-changing. Nothing is glossed over, though it should have been. Mistakes are made with Suzan-Lori Park’s script, Jay Rabinowitz’s choppy editing and Lee’s directorial decisions. After 130 minutes, I should know more about Billie Holiday than what I learned in the film. What did I learn? She performed, did drugs, had sex, got arrested and talked about those things.
Andra Day’s powerhouse performance can only elevate the material so much. With a performer of Day’s talents, you would think a director could cultivate a great film around the performance, but it looks like Day succeeded despite her director bungling the execution of the film.