For millions of people watching the Golden Globes a few weeks ago, Andra Day winning Best Actress in a Drama probably came as a shock, an upset over perceived frontrunners Frances McDormand, Viola Davis, and Carey Mulligan.
If you watched The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu before the ceremony, then Day’s win was a pleasant surprise, the kind you definitely didn’t see coming but deeply appreciate. Her performance is exemplary and even more impressive, given that it’s her first-ever film role. Her portrayal of the legendary jazz singer has a remarkably authentic, lived-in quality as if she’d done nothing but play Billie Holiday her entire life. Even with her perfect mimicry of Holiday’s trademark drawl and the stunning recreations of her classic songs, Day never sinks to the depths of caricature. What she does is connect with years of trauma, pain, disappointment, and defiance that fueled Holiday’s incredible body of work and bring it to life through her eyes, voice, and movements. Day has a commanding screen presence and great confidence in deploying it, especially when she’s singing.
Unfortunately, The United States vs. Billie Holiday doesn’t live up to Andra Day’s considerable abilities. The problems begin with the plot, which zeroes in on the FBI’s dogged pursuit of Holiday as they fear “Strange Fruit,” her powerful musical lament of the lynching of Black people across the South, is beginning to resonate with audiences. Outraged by the idea of a “civil rights movement,” the FBI tasks Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) with infiltrating Holiday’s inner circle and exposing her heroin use so she can be arrested. Their plan works, and Holiday is thrown in jail, but her popularity doesn’t wane. Neither does the FBI’s racist obsession with her, kicking off a years-long crusade to destroy her life, even though her own self-destructive tendencies threaten to beat the agency to the punch.
If the plot sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Judas and the Black Messiah, another biopic in Oscar contention about a Black icon whose life was tragically cut short. That isn’t the only commonality the two films share: The United States vs. Billie Holiday similarly fails to deepen or complicate our understanding of its subject. While Shaka King only scratched the surface of Fred Hampton’s inner life, Lee Daniels tries to encompass as much of Billie Holiday’s life as possible within a limited chronological frame. The director tries to cram in everything: her abusive and sexualized childhood; her toxic and abusive relationships with men; her heroin use; her romance with actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne); her reasons for recording and singing “Strange Fruit;” the health issues that ultimately killed her. Daniels tries to service them all, but his approach is distractingly inelegant. He shares significant details from Holiday’s past haphazardly and doesn’t emotionally ground them. Intimate conversations can feel like exposition dumps rather than illuminating insights into the characters, especially Holiday. Plot elements are swapped in and out; some left unresolved. The chronology is unclear, with some clearly significant moments between characters either skipped over or relegated to a montage.
The issue is more than a messy narrative. Daniels struggles mightily with how he constructs Billie Holiday. The film’s framing device, a retrospective interview with a casually racist journalist played by Leslie Jordan, is wobbly at best, only occasionally popping up to shift the story’s focus. Daniels dispenses with it in the final act to bring the film to the present, further confusing the timeline and rendering the whole exercise pointless. The movie’s tone and style are very inconsistent, sometimes shockingly so. The most egregious example is when, after Fletcher and Holiday’s first real conversation, he attends her loved one’s funeral, her dog Chiquita. With its cuts to a confused Fletcher and a funeral portrait of Chiquita, and some awkward dialogue, the scene plays like a comedy. Intentional or not, it’s bizarre, as is a heroin trip that leads Fletcher into Holiday’s childhood in a brothel where her mother abandons her. Daniels toys with the look and structure, but the stylistic experimentation contributes little to the film itself. At worst, the film feels decidedly cheaper than was Daniels’ intention, as a top-tier cable TV movie.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday continues the tradition of biopics that can’t quite get a handle on the person they’re bringing to life. Daniels trips up by throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the screen in a bid to craft the most definitive account of Billie Holiday’s life and career. However, some lives are so complex and complicated that a film can’t truly explore them, especially within a two-hour runtime. Daniels’ ambition is admirable, but some narrative and stylistic restraint would’ve added gravity to his interpretation of Holiday’s life. Andra Day’s performance is spectacular enough, as her Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination suggests. She, and ultimately Holiday, deserve a film that matches what they bring to the table.