Two completely different movies live within The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and they approach the same subject from different angles. The first details how federal authorities sought to undermine the iconic singer and hobble the emergent Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, the filmmakers attempt to explore Holiday’s tragic, paradoxical blend of strength and fragility, and the demons that would take her far too soon. Ultimately, the movie doesn’t do justice to either story, making this an overlong jumble that falls surprisingly flat. A magnificent lead performance from Andra Day elevates the entire film and almost makes it a must-see. We’ll talk more about that in a bit.
The story focuses on the last decade of Holiday’s life, jumping around to different points along her tragic downward spiral. As a hub, the filmmakers deploy an awkward framing device, in which Holiday sits down for a radio interview with a colorful, fictitious journalist (Leslie Jordan). We first flash back to 1947, just as she has built a devoted fanbase and plays to packed NYC clubs. Despite her success, controversy swirls around Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit,” a searing protest of Southern lynchings. The FBI fears that the song might become an anthem for the Civil Rights movement, and deems Holiday a threat to the status quo.
Unfortunately, Holiday supplies the Bureau with an easy target: By this time in history, she’s already well within the grip of booze and heroin. Her personal life is in shambles. The FBI sends Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to get close to Holiday and bring her down. At first, the ambitious young Fletcher sees this assignment as a career opportunity. Over time, he eventually gets pulled in by Holiday’s unknowable brilliance, and guilt begins to consume him.
Despite Fletcher’s ambivalence, the FBI continues to play an active role in Holiday’s disintegration: She spends extended time in prison. Her license to play club gigs is revoked, making it impossible to find work. When she gets that straightened out, federal agents follow her on tour. All of this harassment only contributes to her battered mental and physical state.
At this point, it feels as if the film has an abundance of compelling material, and it doesn’t know how or when to settle anywhere. For example, we get snippets of Holiday’s complex relationship with actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne). The film insinuates that the two were more than friends, but never explores this subplot in any meaningful way. Even more frustrating, Bankhead had an outsized personality, but it feels watered down here. There’s enough drama and humor between Holiday and Bankhead for an entire movie, but this one leaves us hanging.
Historians (including Leonard Maltin, a devoted fan) have noted that The United States vs. Billie Holiday plays fast and loose with actual events. A big chunk of the film depicts the romantic involvement of Holiday and Agent Walker, despite no evidence of it really happening. Many also complain that the movie strips away Holiday’s vibrancy, her humor, her force. The version we see here dwells in melancholia and shoots up to chase away the emotional despair.
I’m not a Holiday devotee, so I can’t and won’t evaluate this film as a living document of the life she led. It did make me want to take a deeper dive into her work, so there’s that. I will offer my guess that this Billie Holiday will probably disappoint her knowledgable fan base. On the flip side, novices may grow frustrated that the script wanders in and out of different narrative lanes.
On the plus side, the movie blooms when Day takes the stage. Holiday reshaped popular music with her rich phrasing and incredible power. That magic still shines through, and gives The United States vs. Billie Holiday a much-needed jolt of energy.
And that leads us to Andra Day’s performance. Here, she takes an intimidating role and masters it con brio. Day effectively bottles all of Holiday’s charisma, sadness, and reckless abandon into a stunning, Oscar-worthy tour de force. Even when the material threatens to let her down, Day manages to keep the movie compelling.
This makes it even more irritating when the movie shifts focus to the FBI machinations. No doubt the Bureau had a heavy hand in stifling the Civil Rights Movement, but it never quite gels with the rest of the story. In fact, Holiday herself calls it toward the end of the movie: “Your grandkids will be singing ‘Strange Fruit,'” she proudly tells Agent Henry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund). There’s a lot of truth in that. Nobody remembers Anslinger, nor any of the pricks who dragged Billie Holiday offstage. Millions of people do celebrate Holiday, both for her music and cultural impact. In the The United States vs. Billie Holiday, director Lee Daniels finds the perfect actress to embody such a monumental subject. He just can’t get the material up to that same standard.
130 min. R. Hulu.