The United States vs. Billie Holiday

At the Movies Blog

Andra Day will get lots of nominations for playing Billie Holiday.

It’s so interesting that this movie is coming out around the same time as Judas and the Black Messiah. Both stories involve real events in history where the FBI used an African-American man going undercover, to try and arrest African-American figures that the FBI felt were a threat to the country. Even stranger that it was mostly because Holiday was singing the ‘controversial’ song Strange Fruit (the powerful lyrics will appear at the end of this review).

It’s a shame that Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler, Empire) throws so much in here, that it becomes a bloated mess (it’s 2 hours and 10 minutes). The edits are horrible. The timeline is hard to follow. It’s also everything critics have been complaining about biopics for years (and why we all laughed at how Judd Apatow parodied that in Walk Hard).

Instead of all this melodrama and making Holiday a strung out punching bag for the various men in her life, we needed something else. Daniels’ also needed to drop that framing device that is already so tired; where a journalist is interviewing the subject. Here it’s the late ‘50s, and it’s with comedic actor Leslie Jordan, who is usually a hoot. The problem is, this is heavy subject matter, so it doesn’t fit the tone of the picture. Perhaps the fact that Holiday was bisexual, Daniels felt that would be a nice inclusion. It was a big distraction. Daniels also never delves into her bisexuality in this story, for some reason.

This is based on the Johann Hari book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015). The screenplay was adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, and it was desperately in need of a second draft.

Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) is the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and he’s determined to end Holiday’s career. He spouts lines like, “Jazz music is the devil’s work.” (I kind of agree with him there). He continues, “That’s why this Holiday woman must be stopped!”

Oy.

He recruits Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who pretends to be a soldier, always sitting in the front row at her shows. He starts to fall for Holiday and they begin an affair.

The problem then is that this story becomes a melodramatic romance. That takes away from the significance of what the government was doing to this entertainer, who was playing sold out shows. 

Now, where does the movie get things right? Let’s start with the cast. It was great seeing Rob Morgan, who was in one of my favorite movies of last year — Bull. He plays Louis McKay, and since I was first exposed to Billie Holiday’s music as a kid watching Lady Sings the Blues on TV…Billy Dee Williams had some big shoes to fill.

Natasha Lyonne was incredible as actress Tallulah Bankhead, but wasn’t given enough to do.

And then there’s former San Diegan Andra Day. She moved here when she was 3, and as a kid sang in the choir at the First United Methodist Church in Chula Vista. As a teen, she went to the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, graduating in 2003.

Day had covered Strange Fruit years ago, and she’s the perfect choice for the part of Billie Holiday. If this were a better movie, she’d be a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination.

The film is all over the map, and the timeline can be confusing to follow especially with such poor editing. 

It’s also dull, and rather repetitive. 

It was terrific to hear Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do (lyrics: I’d rather my man would hit me/Than jump right up and quit me), and it worked well waiting for the 3rd act to finally hear Strange Fruit. It was rather powerful, and made me think of how powerful it was seeing Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) sing A Change Is Gonna Come in One Night in Miami.

There’s great costume design by Paolo Nieddu. It’s just a shame that with the few great things about this movie, they were let down by Daniels’ poor direction.

2 stars out of 5.

Strange Fruit (written by Abel Meeropol [Lewis Allan], performed by Billie Holiday)

Southern trees bear a strange fruit/blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South/The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh

Here is a fruit for the crowd to pluck

For the rain to gather/For the wind to suck

For the sun to rot/for the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

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