Film Review: The United States vs Billie Holiday Dir: Lee Daniels

The story of Billie Holiday, arguably the finest vocalist of the 20th century, is a sad story that seems to resonate even more powerfully in this age of Black Lives Matter and the recent high-profile police killings in the US.

Starring Andrea Day, Trevante Rhodes, Leslie Jordan, Tyler James

Billie HolidayBillie Holiday’s story has been told on film before, most notably in 1972 when Diana Ross starred in Lady Sings The Blues.

This time around it’s Andrea Day who plays Lady Day, and like Diana Ross, Andrea Day’s performance deserves an Oscar nomination.

Unfortunately Day is let down in this film by director Lee Daniels (Precious) and screenwriter Suzan Lori-Parks.

The film opens with Billie Holiday being interviewed late in her career and life (1958-ish) by a radio personality who seems completely clueless and has little respect or understanding about Holiday’s music.

Then we jump back to the 1940s with Holiday at her artistic peak. Why the sudden change in time?

I have no idea. It often feels like Daniels hits fast-forward and rewind randomly.

Of course the performances by Day as Billie are stunning and they make watching this film almost mandatory. But Daniels’ ability to tell a story seems almost stunted.

Billie HolidayThe story is…how Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedland) chief of the newly-formed federal Bureau of Narcotics, becomes obsessed in bringing down Billie Holiday after she refuses to stop singing Strange Fruit.

Apparently sending her to the slammer for a year and a day in 1947 on a narcotics conviction wasn’t enough and Anslinger recruits agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) a black man, to entrap Billie Holiday by any means necessary.

Daniels and Lori-Parks never let the facts get in the way of their film and there is much here that is highly improbable, but, I will say, the tone is accurate.

The costumes, the music, the performances by the Andrea Day, Trevante Rhodes and Tyler James (as sax player Lester Young) are all commendable.

Yet, the film is still a mess thanks to Daniels’ scattershot direction and Lori-Parks’ script that finds the actors struggling to make expositional speech sound realistic.

Also, I found the visualization of the drug use, the domestic violence and the sex to be bordering on obscene. Its almost as if the racism, misogyny and violence that Holiday had to battle against back in the 40s and 50s has returned with this film.

So, view at your own risk.

Marty Duda

The United States vs Billie Holiday opens today in NZ cinemas.