Before her 25th birthday, jazz singer Billie Holiday had already earned a career’s worth of artistic accomplishments. After overcoming a shockingly turbulent childhood, she broke through with a number of hit recordings alongside legendary artists Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, toured with the nationally acclaimed Count Basie Orchestra and even appeared in a film alongside Duke Ellington. She also broke racial barriers by touring with the Artie Shaw Orchestra and becoming the first Black woman to tour the U.S. South with a white bandleader in 1938. Unfortunately, none of these milestone moments receive any screen time in Lee Daniel’s new Holiday biopic, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Instead, Daniel’s film largely focuses on the low points of Holiday’s adult life, treating us to painstakingly graphic depictions of heroin injections, lynchings, cross burnings and domestic violence. In turn, Holiday’s brilliant musicianship is relegated to a backstory.
It is more than reasonable for a screenwriter or director to leave out or even fabricate aspects of a character’s life in order to make a compelling biopic. Unfortunately, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” not only portrays Holiday (Andra Day) as a helpless victim with little to no agency over her own life but also fails to even make the story compelling. Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is that it is largely devoid of Holiday’s own perspective. About half of the film is portrayed through the eyes of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the Black undercover FBI agent that befriends Holiday before arresting her for heroin possession. Several of the film’s scenes provide an attentive look at Fletcher’s psyche. Through his conversations with his mother and other FBI agents, we see him develop from hesitant beginnings into a ruthlessly effective cop, before eventually coming to regret his role in the agency altogether.
Holiday, on the other hand, is portrayed as a tormented spirit, but we are not shown why until the film’s final hour. In one odd heroin-induced flashback that lasts five minutes, Holiday shows Fletcher some of her formative childhood moments, such as being forced into prostitution as a young girl and witnessing a lynching. She then confusingly accepts him back into her inner circle and shortly after has sex with him. This aspect of their relationship is completely fictional and diminishes Holiday’s importance as a defiant figure by brazenly exaggerating her sympathy towards law enforcement.
This leads me to the film’s other major issue, its chronology. Aimlessly bouncing between a 1957 interview, Holiday’s performances and legal battles in the late ’40s and flashbacks of her childhood, the film makes it hard for anyone without preexisting knowledge of Holiday’s life to understand exactly what they are watching. Daniel’s sporadic splattering of newspaper clippings and his switches between black and white, sepia tones and standard tints only adds to this confusion.
The film, named after the title of Holiday’s 1947 court case, opens with a photograph of a lynching and text describing the failed Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. This single shot makes it clear that the film was written as a civil rights drama, not a musical one. While this is a respectable decision, the film does not succeed in this regard either. Based on a chapter from Jonathan Hari’s book “Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” the movie centers itself around The Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry J. Anslinger’s (Garrett Hedlund) attempts to arrest Holiday for drug possession and stop her from singing her popular anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit.” With his blunt and unimaginative lines, Anslinger’s character makes it seem as if anti-Black racism was a problem perpetuated by a few cartoon-villain-like characters who targeted well-known cultural figures rather than a complex system of oppression that continues to affect millions of Black Americans. One scene, where Holiday is not allowed to ride on the same elevator as her white, female lover, Talluluh Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), powerfully exemplifies the more common, subtle manifestations of Jim Crow, but this is an exceptional moment in the film.
Andra Day’s phenomenal portrayal of Holiday is one of the movie’s few silver linings. Day matches Holiday’s unique voice, language and mannerisms down to a T, and her renditions of Holiday’s songs are consistently wonderful. This only leaves me wishing that this side of Holiday received more screen time. The closest we get to a creative musical discussion is when her friend, saxophonist Lester Young (Tyler James Williams), who doesn’t play anything like the real Lester Young, fleetingly mentions a “C sharp.” Even during Holiday’s most triumphant moments, such as her 1948 Carnegie Hall comeback concert, Daniels cannot help but put the camera on Fletcher and Anslinger.
If you enjoy seeing historically talented Black women reduced to hapless drug addicts while being constantly manipulated, exploited and beaten by Black men, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is the perfect film for you. If you were hoping to see an honest portrayal of Holiday’s troubled life, musical contributions and cultural impact, then you may want to look elsewhere. By giving equal attention to Holiday’s rise during the 1930s and successes during the early ’40s, Daniels could have crafted an epic rise-and-fall narrative that would have been more exciting for viewers and true to Holiday’s trials and tribulations. Instead, despite Andra Day’s commendable effort, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is a disjointed, unfocused and ultimately disappointing film that grossly distorts Holiday’s legacy.