TL;DR – A film with one of the best individual performances I have seen in a long time, bolstered by an amazing supporting cast but ultimately held back by some odd stylistic choices.
Post-Credit Scene – There is a mid-credit scene.
Warning – Depicts scenes of abuse.
Disclosure – I was invited to a screening of this film.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday Review –
Billie Holiday has one of those voices that you can instantly pick out. It has this uncanny ability to be soft and harsh all at once. When writing this review, I wondered when the first time was I had heard a recording of her performing? And it could have been off one of my grandfather’s records as he always had Jazz and Big Band playing. Or at the very least, it was on one of the radio stations in Fallout. But knowing about her voice, I realised before watching this film that I did not know much about her life at all. Well, today, I help fix that with a movie that charts some of the struggles she faced.
So to set the scene, we open with an older Billie (Andra Day) as she and her manager Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence), sits down with interviewer Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) to chart her life and explore why the government is so opposed to her. Well, we flashback in time to 1947, as a young soldier Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) makes his way to a jazz club in New York City where Billie is about to perform a complete set, including the one song no one but the audience wants her to sing Strange Fruit. Someone who especially wants her to stop the song is Agent Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a difficult film to watch at times because it does not have a rose-tinted view of that era. Indeed, this is a film that opens with a shot from a lynching in all its horrific clarity. This is also a film that dives into the world of abuse and drug addiction. Exploring how this shapes a person while also heaping upon it the full force of a racist government is overwhelming at times. It is also a film that highlights just how little society has changed in many respects as we see in the world all the time.
All of this pain and joy are encapsulated in Andra Day’s performance, so I would have never thought that this was her debut film performance. There is a complexity to her performance that gives you a rounded look into Billie’s life, the highs and the lows. You don’t have a cookie-cutter depiction but rather a nuanced view that feels like we are seeing a whole person rather than depicting one. This is even before she starts singing, giving another powerful performance through her voice. Every time the film focuses on her performance, it is better for it. Andra Day gives a powerhouse performance from the opening to closing moments with no missed step along the way.
As well as this, all of the supporting cast shine as different aspects of Billie’s life. The moment you see Trevante Rhodes walk on the screen in his uniform, you know he is there to give a commanding performance, and he brings the physicality and the depth that you need. Garrett Hedlund slinks into the role of Harry J. Anslinger in much the same way that Jesse Plemons does in Judas and the Black Messiah and hits all those moments of pressure that you need. The real stand out for me was Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who played Miss Roslyn, one of Billie’s inner-circle. She is the constant companion of Billie, supporting her at her lowest points. She loves Billie but also won’t be there when she shoots up. This creates a layered dynamic that the film needs.
While the performances were terrific, and it was great to see a film explore the difficult life of Billie Holiday, this is a film with several structural issues that hold the narrative back. The first of these is how the film deals with abuse. I don’t envy the difficult job it would have been trying to unpack that aspect of Billie’s life. However, the way the film chooses to use music, focusing on the male characters in parts of the narrative, and dramatising parts of this aspect of her life, felt more exploitative than illuminating.
The next big issue comes from some of the stylistic choices the film employs. Whenever the film uses footage from the era, it does not hard cut from the modern style to the style used in the 1940s. Instead, it blends into 1940s style bit by bit and then does the opposite in reverse. Now I am perfectly willing to admit that this is a personal preference, but I think that a hard cut would have been better because it felt messy. This is exacerbated by the fact that bar the very start and the very end of the film, that footage was not a helpful addition, so it became messy for no real reason. As the film progresses, the merges become more prominent and more involved, sometimes taking up whole sequences, but they never lose their messiness.
In the end, do we recommend The United States vs. Billie Holiday? This is not a perfect film at all, with some structural and stylistic issues that hold it back. However, Andra Day’s performance transcends all of those gripes. It also shines a light on a governmental push that we are still seeing in society today. If you liked The United States vs. Billie Holiday, I would recommend you Queen and Slim.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Directed by – Lee Daniels
Screenplay by – Suzan-Lori Parks
Based on – Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari
Music by – Kris Bowers
Cinematography by – Andrew Dunn
Edited by – Jay Rabinowitz
Production/Distribution Companies – Lee Daniels Entertainment, New Slate Ventures, Roth/Kirschenbaum Films & Universal Pictures
Starring – Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Miss Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Evan Ross, Tyler James Williams, Tone Bell, Erik LaRay Harvey, Melvin Gregg, Dana Gourrier & Leslie Jordan
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: na; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R
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