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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The United States vs Billie Holiday

In her first lead role, singer-turned-actor Andra Day is phenomenal as the iconic musician — but the film she's in often feels both rousing and standard.
By Sarah Ward
April 26, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
April 26, 2021
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More than 80 years after it was first sung and heard, Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit' still isn't easily forgotten. Drawn from a poem penned to protest lynchings, it's meant to shock and haunt. It's designed to galvanise and mobilise, too, as drawing attention to the extrajudicial killings of Black Americans should. Indeed, so vivid is the song in its language — "Black bodies swingin' in the southern breeze" describes the third line — US authorities demanded that Holiday stop performing it. She refused repeatedly, so there were repercussions. Concerned that the track would spark change, inspire Holiday's fans to fight for civil rights and justice, and perhaps motivate riots against against oppression and discrimination as well, the US Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics went after the musician for her drug use. If it couldn't get her to cease crooning the controversial tune via other means, such as overt warnings and a prominent police presence at her shows, it'd do whatever it could to keep her from reaching the stage night after night.

So tells The United States vs Billie Holiday, the latest Oscar-nominated biopic to step through its namesake's life. Back in 1972, Lady Sings the Blues loosely adapted Holiday's autobiography of the same name, enlisting Diana Ross to play the singer — but, in taking inspiration instead from Johann Hari's non-fiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, this latest big-screen vision of the music icon's story adopts its own angle. Holiday's troubled childhood and youth has its part in this tale, which is scripted for the screen by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Her addiction, and the personal woes that she tried to blot out, clearly don't escape filmmaker Lee Daniels' (The Butler) attention, either. But The United States vs Billie Holiday also falls in alongside Seberg, MLK/FBI and Judas and the Black Messiah in interrogating bleak truths about mid-20th century America. That includes the misplaced priorities of its government during multiple administrations, and the blatant determination shown by an array of agencies under various presidents to undermine, persecute and silence those considered a supposedly un-American threat to the status quo.

Framed by a late 50s interview between Holiday (Andra Day, Marshall) and a gossip journalist (Leslie Jordan, Will & Grace), Daniels' film flits back and forth through the former's life. Her career heyday takes pride of place, but complexity seethes through every facet of her existence — whether she's ignoring commands not to sing 'Strange Fruit' in the 40s, being sentenced to prison for narcotics towards the decade's end, making a sold-out comeback at Carnegie Hall, cycling through relationships with several abusive men or peering back at memories of her unhappy upbringing. The narrative anchor: Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight). Tasked by crusading Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund, Dreamland) to infiltrate Holiday's inner circle, he becomes a pal, a lover and also one of the key figures responsible for her incarceration. He's regarded warily by Holiday's dutiful entourage, which spans her best friend Roslyn (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Kajillionaire), stylist Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence, Star) and saxophonist Lester Young (Tyler James Williams, Detroit). And yet, Holiday consistently warms to Fletcher, including both before and after he starts questioning his real purpose.

Holiday's status as a legend will never be diminished. Despite the US Government's concerted efforts otherwise, 'Strange Fruit' has cemented its place in history, too. But even given The United States vs Billie Holiday's iconic point of focus, her vitally important song, and the crucial and committed approach taken to both, the film that results here often feels little more than standard. It adheres to the biographical drama playbook, and uses Anslinger as a cartoonish villain. Its arrival on-screen in such close proximity to the aforementioned Seberg and Judas and the Black Messiah also imparts an unshakeable air of familiarity. The United States vs Billie Holiday is often rousing and moving. It tells an essential story, and tracks the tragedies and the triumphs alike. But it remains forcefully wedded to convention, to the extent that almost every second of the narrative plays out as expected, and every filmmaking choice as well — regardless of whether viewers already know the minutiae of Holiday's life intimately or are learning it anew.

That well-worn sensation applies to most areas of the movie, except one. Day took her stage name from Billie Holiday's nickname, with Young dubbing the icon Lady Day — and in her first lead role, the 'Rise Up' singer turns in an absolute powerhouse performance. A Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Drama has already come her way, along with a Best Actress Oscar nomination, because this is an intense, impassioned, career-defining portrayal. Even when the feature itself becomes unfocused, including through Daniels' erratic stylistic flourishes, Day is simply mesmerising. She sings Holiday's songs flawlessly, and she also conveys the lifetime of struggle that lingers behind every word. She mirrors the star's presence, too; when she's centre stage, or placed in the centre of cinematographer Andrew Dunn's (The Children Act) frame, everything else seems to fade away.

Day's rendition of 'Strange Fruit' isn't easily forgotten, fittingly; however, neither is anything about her performance. The raspiness of her voice expresses Holiday's pain, even when just uttering a single word. The fixed gaze her character continually directs Fletcher's way manages to be equally withering and melting, and the complicated rapport she shares with the also-excellent Rhodes makes for many of the movie's best moments. But if Day constantly vividly and memorably honours the woman she's playing — and she does, especially when she's belting out her songs — The United States vs Billie Holiday can't always claim to do the same. No one's life story should feel like it's ticking boxes, and Holiday's certainly didn't, but Daniels seems to forget that more often than anyone should.

Image: Takashi Seida.

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