The United States vs. Billie Holiday: Film Review

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Singer Andra Day, in her first major movie role, has scored Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Awards nominations for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lee Daniels’ latest film and it’s clear to see why – she is sensational. So it’s a shame she’s failed by the rest of the movie.

The biopic begins in 1957 when Billie is giving an interview to Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) and that forms the narrative structure of the film, which then goes back ten years. The story focuses on how the singer is targeted by the government for her song Strange Fruit, which is about the lynching of African-Americans, and to get her to stop singing one of her most famous songs, they go after her for her substance abuse issues, with Federal Bureau of Narcotics official Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) leading the charge and James Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) being the mole within her circle, although his loyalty to the government is tested by his growing feelings for Billie.

Day, whose previous acting credits include being a nightclub singer in 2017’s Marshall and a voice role in Cars 3, truly deserves her nominations for her performance here. It is an impressive transformation and she embodied Billie so convincingly, adopting her husky, raspy voice and nailing her way of singing too. Her performance is raw and she does well balancing Billie’s tough and feisty side with her vulnerable one. I must also praise the costume and hair and make-up teams because she looks stunning.

Rhodes provided strong support as James/Jimmy, who thinks he’s doing good work cracking down on drugs before he eventually realises the feds are just using him as a pawn to get to Billie. His love and adoration for her were plain to see. Rob Morgan did well as one of the antagonists of the piece – Billie’s despicable abusive husband Louis McKay – while Hedlund is the same shady, awful person I’ve seen him play plenty of times before. I also enjoyed Tyler James Williams, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Miss Lawrence as Billie’s “family” and Natasha Lyonne as her friend, although she is not in it enough. Lyonne is never in movies anywhere near enough!

But the problem with the movie lies elsewhere. The biggest issue is the length – it is way too long and it is hard to stay invested in the narrative, particularly when Billie keeps making the same mistakes (relapsing, going back to abusive men). I like that Daniels didn’t try to sugar-coat her story and make her seem perfect, but some of her choices were infuriating to watch. Even though I enjoyed her performances and felt she had a captivating presence on stage, I thought there were too many that didn’t serve a purpose and could have been cut, just to help trim down the runtime.

Even though I found the story interesting by virtue of the fact I didn’t know anything about Billie, I have to admit the biopic is told in a really conventional, dull, and uninspired way so I didn’t connect with it. It was also all over the place tonally and felt like a bunch of scenes joined together than one cohesive movie. What a shame.

On Sky Cinema now

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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