There’s an excellent movie hidden somewhere in Lee Daniels’s “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” a biopic about the legendary singer who was hunted nonstop by the FBI. There are romantic subplots, persecution, musical acts and lots of melodrama, but a messy script struggles to connect its pieces. However, there’s one element that makes the film always watchable, and quite enjoyable: the main performance.
Holiday is played by singer Andra Day, who guides the movie through thick and thin. Even though the bloated narrative threatens to derail her, Day always remains strong to deliver a powerful performance. The film portrays her as a self-destructive artist aware of her impact in the civil rights movement who is constantly being accused and harrassed. Day manages to be strong and vulnerable; she carries herself with confidence and creates electricity whenever she’s on stage.
Similar to recent films “MLK/FBI” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” explores the methods used by the FBI to try to silence Black voices. The film opens with a title card stating the importance of “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s song whose lyrics center around the lynching of a Black man; the FBI would see the singing of this tune as a dangerous act of defiance and a threat to America, and Holiday would sing it as a form of activism. Led by commissioner of the Treasury’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), the organization would go on to use Holiday’s heroin addiction as an excuse for her prosecution.
There’s a lot going on. The movie carelessly uses flashbacks to tell the story of Holiday, but never dares to stop, breathe and fully explore one of the many important occurrences of her past. Suzan Lori Park’s script brushes aside Holiday’s abusive childhood, and her bisexuality is barely touched on.
Lee Daniels isn’t exactly known for his subtlety, and his inflated stylistic choices here are constant distractors. The director seems more interested in making a flashy spectacle than telling a cohesive story. The structure is disheveled and the editing is brash; there are plenty of unnecessary montages that take your focus away from Day’s performance. The end credits scene might as well be an encapsulation of the mistakes of the film: a beautiful moment ruined by an inexplicably bad choice.
The strongest subplot of the film comes in the form of a love story between Holiday and Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an undercover agent who is used to arrest her. After she is released from prison, Fletcher develops feelings for her and a complex relationship. He helped in the oppression of Black people, but is now showing a tenderness that is alien to Holiday. Rhodes (“Moonlight”) is very strong in the role as a mysterious yet sweet love force.
Despite the chaos, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is propelled by spectacular musical scenes, award worthy costumes, a strong cast and an intoxicating Andra Day performance.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”