Lady Day Soars, But Her Film Stings
The United States vs. Billie Holiday drops on Hulu this Friday. Reincarnating the Lady Day in her effective film debut, singer-songwriter Andra Day is a cataclysmic force, encompassing the seemingly impossible range of a life full of oppression, joy, paranoia, and heartbreak. Day finds the emotional center, carrying a spark of righteous defiance through every moment of Holiday’s too-short 44 years. The picture itself lacks such a center. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a roiling biopic, at times covering both too much and too little, that prioritizes entertainment when it shouldn’t and induces whiplash with its numerous tonal and narrative shifts. Holiday is all too self-aware of its burden of reviving a legend.
The film begins and ends with Holiday, and nowhere near enough positive things can be said about Day’s performance. Her energy grows both more weary and more frantic as the film - and her life - spirals toward inevitable tragedy. Her voice mirrors this descent, a sexy rasp turning into a ragged edge as years’ of mistreatment at her partners’ hands and harassment from the FBI take their toll.
And that is the meaning of the title here: more than just about one court case, this movie is a battle between opponents. Holiday’s wish is to live her life and her truth, to perform what was then and has remained her most famous song, ‘Strange Fruit,’ amidst an increasingly growing civil rights movement. The FBI’s goal was to stop her. A simple story, yet one that director Lee Daniels complicates with visual trickery, including attempts at “de-aging” his film stock and shifting between color and black & white that do nothing more than draw attention to the film and away from its subject.
Daniels’ most mind-boggling decision is a bit of tonal skullduggery that defies explanation, serving little purpose other than to undermine Billie’s story. As the FBI finds its first and greatest success, Billie Holiday goes to prison. This will likely be a revelation to countless viewers who don’t know the jazz queen’s full biography, yet Daniels strips the sequence of any weight, instead turning her prison time into an ill-advised rom-com montage that feels airlifted from a completely different movie. He repeats this move later, turning her complicated relationship with a Black federal agent tasked with apprehending her into a buoyant will-they, won’t they.
The film also covers too much and too little. Skipping massive chunks of time and leaping across seemingly essential relationships can certainly be forgiven in such a sprawling biopic, yet Daniels opts to spend countless minutes of precious screen time on Holiday’s sexual relationships, lingering, with a gratuitously male gaze, on the physical and emotional nakedness of Holiday. His camera trains with similar obsession on the violence and drug use in Holiday’s life. I support a full-throated exploration of the life of any public figure, but was disturbed by this film’s fixation on the psychological deconstruction of Billie Holiday. The most generous interpretation I can produce is that this was an attempt to show the consequences of the world’s mistreatment of this otherworldly talent. I cannot, however, say that it was successful in any way.
There are good things about The United States vs. Billie Holiday, even some fantastic ones. During nearly every musical performance, Daniels intercuts footage of Holiday off the stage, usually juxtaposing the ugly difficulties of her life with the easygoing glamor of her concerts. The technique is thought-provoking on its own, but has a more gut-level impact when Daniels deviates from it, presenting the only long-take when Billie finally sings ‘Strange Fruit’ in its entirety for a gaping, gasping crowd at Carnegie Hall. Both Day and Daniels deserve credit for this stunning, harrowing sequence. If only the rest of the film lived up to its subject.