Movie review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Can you contain the searing truth and undeniable essence of a powerfully true story in a less than adventurous vessel?

Usually not, and yet in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, directed by Lee Daniels to screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, that is essentially what happens as we witness the confronting and yet necessary story of Billie Holiday (Andra Day), a woman who experienced a great deal of tragedy, loss and pain in her life and seemed to funnel it all into every last one of her tremendously affecting songs.

She is known best of course for her signature track, “Strange Fruit”, a song that arrestingly draws attention to lynchings of Black Americans, a barbaric practice that the film goes to great pains, before and after its somewhat ponderous narrative has run its course, has yet to be officially outlawed in the United States.

Time and again, The United States vs. Billie Holiday brings us back to the grave injustices meted out to Black Americans generally – at one point Agent Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics and chief villain of the film, acidly ascribes all of America’s woes down to drugs and Black people – and to Holiday in particular whose life began in unwanted misery, a desperately awful state of being that never found much deviation thereafter.

It is, in fact, her constant companions of pain and loss, and love so tainted by cruelty, violence and conditional indifference and manipulation, that form the grim centrepiece of a film that understands all too well how deprivation of unconditional love early in life can create a void that struggles to be filled.

Holiday tried to fill her chasm of loss with heroin, an addiction that she knew to be to her everlasting detriment but which became the only way, much of the time, to dull an aching sense of loss and unloveliness.

It was her addiction that became her Achilles heel in more ways than one, with the U.S. Government, concerned that “Strange Fruit” might encourage people to rise up and fight for transformative social change, obsessively prosecuting her for real and orchestrated drug offences, all in a bid to keep her off the stage that became her platform for vitally important social agitation.

In that respect, Holiday was different to her peers such as Ella Fitzgerald.

Unable or unwilling to toe the line, Holiday, who was oft criticised by Black media for failing to keep her head down and play along with the unjust status quo, returned again and again to the fact that Black people were manifestly oppressed in ways big and small and that she, a woman who had known on an intimate level what it is to have all your liberties taken from you, couldn’t not simply stay silent and accept.

She did at times simply because it was often too crushingly difficult to fight back such as when, after just over a year of incarceration for possession and use of heroin – she pleads for hospital time and help to get clean but is given only punitive “assistance”, all at the hands of a Black agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) who comes to regret his role in bringing her lower than she already is – she performs to a sellout crowd at Carnegie Hall in New York.

When a white audience member calls out for her to sing “Strange Fruit”, the singer, high at the time on heroin in a bid, she says, to give people a good time, simply and sadly shrugs and says not this time.

The risks are simply too high, but Holiday, intensely aware of what discrimination and hatred can do to a person, cannot stay silent for long and we see in a series of scenes how brave she is to stand up, at great emotional and professional cost, to a system she sees as rampantly unjust and which is working hard to destroy her (there’s not an ounce of hyperbole in that phrase; that is precisely what Anslinger and his agency are seeking to do).

By any measure, Holiday’s story is an immensely moving and powerful one, and Andra Day, a singer-turned-actor, brings the much-celebrated singer to life in ways both unbearable tragic and vivaciously, desperately alive.

Her performances of iconic songs like “All of Me”, “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Strange Fruit” as spectacularly and intimately memorable, and the actor’s ability to channel a world of pain in one raspy word leaves your eyes (and and your heart and soul) riveted to the screen for the film’s two hours and ten minutes running time.

Where The United States vs. Billie Holiday falls down unfortunately is in its direction.

While Day is consistently knocking it out of the park and daring orthodoxy to try to catch her once again, Daniels seems happy to cling to a conventional biopic, the kind that goes from A to B and does n’t really doing anything daring in-between.

It also shows a predilection for melodrama and overly obvious depiction of salient truth such as when Holiday gets off her tour bus to witness the aftermath of a lynching, an horrific scene which, with all the poetic resonance of a badly-executed interpretive dance sequence, segues into Holiday falling once more into habitual drug use.

This is not to damn Daniels entirely; it is clear what the gifted director and producer is trying to convey and the artistry and poetry he is trying to bring to the scene but it falls flat, a victim less of ambition than a tendency to prioritise style over substance when the substance is resonant enough.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a gripping movie even so, precisely because Day, a gifted actor and singer who seems born for the part, brings the arresting figure of Holiday to life so defiantly and with so much passion and lingering, corrosive sadness.

It is she, and she alone, much of the time, though credit must also be given to Rhodes, and to Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Holiday’s devoted best friend Roslyn for their emotively-rich performances, who keeps the film engaging and unmissable, a singular force of presence that cannot be denied even when in the latter parts of the film she is fast beginning her physical decline which saw her die at the untimely age of 44 in 1959.

Holiday is one of the most celebrated and iconic figures of the 20th century because she dared to challenge a rotten status quo, and while she paid dearly for it – though as you watch the early parts of her life with her uncaringly cold sex worker mother, you realise she paid a great price a scant number of years after being born – and we see that near physically manifested pain in every evocative scene, she played a key role on laying the groundwork for the later Civil Rights movement, and if nothing else, The United States vs. Billie Holiday pays heartfelt and indelibly memorable tribute to a woman who, even through her pain, refused to let her oppressors have the final word.

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