With the critical and commercial success of films like 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and 2019’s “Rocketman,” there is clearly a thirst to hear the untold stories of pop culture’s most iconic figures. Joining this collection of biopic/musical/historical/drama films is Hulu’s “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” which premiered on the platform on Friday and stars Andra Day as the titular character. Similar to 2019’s “Judy,” the sheer star power of the production’s leading lady is the key redeeming quality of an otherwise complicated and chaotic storyline.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, director Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Butler,” “Empire”) made clear that “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is not meant to be a biopic. Instead, the film looks at the last 12 years of Holiday’s life, focusing on her song “Strange Fruit,” an early civil rights anthem decrying the horrific lynching of Black Americans in the South. As Holiday continues to sing across the country, the song serves as a reminder that the federal government is failing to protect American citizens from mob rule, prompting an FBI plot to take Holiday down and incriminate her by exploiting her opioid addiction. Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) launches a personal vendetta against Holiday, planting Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to bring her crusade to a screeching halt.
“the film looks at the last 12 years of Holiday’s life, focusing on her song “Strange Fruit,” an early civil rights anthem decrying the horrific lynching of Black Americans in the South.”
While the film’s plot, based on the true story of Holiday’s struggle with the federal government, is incredibly fascinating, the central issue is clouded by the lack of uniformity and clarity in the storytelling process. The film begins in an interview with the fictional radio journalist Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) who asks Holiday a series of questions that force her to reflect on her career. While it would seem the film would follow this flashback format, the second half of the film takes place after the interview, with several interruptions in both halves depicting the “meanwhile” scenes in the FBI offices.
The film took several pauses for Day to perform Holiday’s iconic songs, which I am by no means complaining about. Day’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Strange Fruit” was particularly powerful, especially following the gruesome depiction of a Black family whose mother was lynched and left hanging on a tree to rot.
This scene, while salvaged by Day’s heart-wrenching performance, was difficult to understand, especially for anyone unfamiliar with the details of Billie Holiday’s life. When Holiday used drugs at any point in the film, a new scene played out in her mind. Was it a factual flashback depicting a real event in Holiday’s life or was a fictional fantasy caused by heroin use? Truthfully, it was hard to distinguish the two, especially when the scenes slid one into another without any clear break.
“Day brings a tragic intimacy to the character by depicting the less glamorous, difficult aspects of Holiday’s short life. Her spot-on performances of Billie Holiday fan-favorites are reason enough to watch the film, as these are classics that we need to revisit.”
Overall, while I admit that the film was difficult to understand at points and seemed to be told like a four-part miniseries rather than a full-length film, I do not want to take anything away from Day’s incomparable performance or the film’s subject matter. Day brings a tragic intimacy to the character by depicting the less glamorous, difficult aspects of Holiday’s short life. Her spot-on performances of Billie Holiday fan-favorites are reason enough to watch the film, as these are classics that we need to revisit. It is no surprise that Day took home the Golden Globe for Best Actress in Motion Picture Drama on Sunday night, after such a captivating performance. I’d even go as far to say that she is a lead contender for this year’s Oscar.
More than anything, I applaud the film for seeking to tell this story to begin with, as this is an era and aspect of American history that we need to acknowledge and reckon with, and I believe this film begins the conversation.