The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)
Regular visitors to this site will be aware of the many tropes within the biopic genre, including concocting an interview to examine a person’s life, flashbacks, voice-overs and montages of headlines mixed with recreated episodes. Director Lee Daniels employs all these tricks and creates a few of his own to provide this meandering portrait of Billie Holiday. Despite an outstanding performance by Andra Day in her film debut, this film’s impact is fatally dulled by a second half that aimlessly trudges towards its inevitable conclusion.
A powerful opening reminds us that lynching is not confined to the distant past, explaining that a bill aimed at outlawing the act failed to pass the US Senate in 1937. Twenty years later, a forlorn Billie Holiday recounts how her anti-lynching song ‘Strange Fruit’ brought her into conflict with the authorities. At a meeting attended by such notable figures as Joseph McCarthy, J. Parnell Thomas and Roy Cohn, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger agrees that if they “can’t arrest a nigger for singing a song”, they will silence Holiday by targeting her drug use. Enter undercover FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher who, after ingratiating himself with Holiday’s troupe, arrests her shortly after she attempts to perform the song. After spending a year in jail, the singer makes a triumphant return by giving a sell-out concert at Carnegie Hall.
That moment marked the end of Lady Sings the Blues, an earlier Holiday biopic that many felt failed to convey her popularity by excising the years that followed. The United States vs Billie Holiday does cover this period but like the bus the singer tours on, it goes nowhere in particular before running out of gas. There are nevertheless many fine sequences, including a drug-induced hallucination that finds Fletcher taking a trip into Holiday’s past and a stylised segue linking a lynching to a memorable rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’. Yet a distinct lack of pace and cohesiveness, exacerbated by a slew of perfunctory montages, undermines the whole venture. Fortunately, there is still Andra Day’s performance to savour.
Raw and unflinching offstage, her renditions of such Holiday hits as ‘All of Me’, ‘T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness’ and ‘God Bless the Child’ are just sublime. Shockingly, the closing coda underscores the continued significance of ‘Strange Fruit’.
The interview of Billie Holiday that frames this biopic is fictitious, as are the two characters (Miss Freddy and Reginald Lord Devine) who are present during the taping.
Though the film depicts Billie Holiday advising the Carnegie Hall audience that she can’t sing ‘Strange Fruit’, her setlist indicates that she did perform the song that night.
Though it appears Billie Holiday and Jimmy Fletcher remained on good terms despite his surveillance, there is no proof that the two became lovers.
As with Lady Sings the Blues, this film biopic spends some time in Los Angeles but doesn't cover Holiday’s limited film career.