Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

By Christian DiMartino

If you have seen Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Andra Day’s recent Golden Globe win for Best Actress-Drama perhaps came as no real surprise. As for me, I hadn’t seen it, so I was pretty baffled, especially because it arrived so late into the Oscar race, and because of the likes of Carey Mulligan, Frances McDormand, and Vanessa Kirby. While I’m still not necessarily sure if Day will win the Oscar, I can say that the aforementioned ladies should probably watch out, because Day is a last-minute contender to be reckoned with.

Day is a revelation in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, in a commanding, breathtaking piece of acting that is surely in line for an Academy Award nomination. Before seeing it, it was my assumption that this might be a throwaway nomination; having seen it, this clearly isn’t so. This is a giant breakthrough for Day, who holds our attention all the way through and is, ultimately, the reason to see the movie. The movie around her hits a little different for everyone. Some don’t dig it, some dig it, if only mostly for Day. I lean towards the latter- it’s a decent movie, and with a true story as compelling as this one, it was perhaps always destined to at least be interesting. Yet the journey can be a bumpy one, if mostly for one key flaw.

Day is Holiday, and while my knowledge of Holiday the person is pretty slim, I know Holiday’s voice, and guys, this is as close to the real thing as it can get. Truth be told, how she did it may forever remain a mystery. When it comes to a performance like this, my preferences vary. I was never really impressed by Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury because not only did he not really sing, but it didn’t feel like a stretch in terms of acting. Yet Angela Bassett doesn’t do her own singing for What’s Love Got to Do With It?, and that performance is pretty remarkable. See, you don’t have to sing, but if you’re not going to sing, you have to do something to make up for it. Day, like last year’s Best Actress Oscar winner Renee Zellweger, is aces in every book.

The story is one that I was aware of, and again is undeniably interesting- certainly strong material for a movie. The film follows Holiday in the 1940s, at the peak of her career and stardom but also in quite the pickle in terms of the law. She pretty much immediately finds herself in the crosshairs of the FBI because of her classic Strange Fruit. The FBI sees the song, about the lynching of African Americans in the south, as American slander (it is, and deservedly so, and even more disturbing to think that we STILL haven’t come that far, but that’s another story). Hence why she has a target on her back, and it doesn’t help that she consistently insists on singing it (some of these performances lead to arrests).

Aware of Holiday’s drug problem, the FBI then tried her for that. They claimed it was to defeat the quote-on-quote “war on drugs,” which, sure, but seeing as she was already a target, it’s safe to say that it was more than just the drugs. The film also follows a love affair between her and Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who happens to be an informant for the FBI, along with Holiday’s battle with addiction, her relationships with both men and women, her traumatic childhood, and her ultimate demise.

Again, rich material for a film, and Daniels does a fine job of conveying just what a horrendous botch job the United States did on Holiday. The story is an interesting one, and yet I reached a point after a little while where it seemed as if Holiday didn’t have much in the way of personality. This is not the fault of Day, who again doesn’t miss a beat, but the fault of Daniels, the two-time Academy Award nominated filmmaker of Precious (his last, and only, great movie). It’s not that Daniels’ direction is poor. The issue is that Holiday is depicted as a sad victim, which is not undeserved, but it seems as if her only role in the story is to be persecuted, harassed, abused. Holiday, as depicted here, doesn’t get a chance to breathe because Daniels only really portrays her as a figurative (and sometimes literal) punching bag. This might’ve been the point, which certainly hammers home the magnitude of the ultimate tragedy. Yet in going at it from this angle, we don’t fully get a sense of who she was as a person; just the tragedy that surrounded her.

There are people who like this movie less than I. It’s a decent movie- fine looking and compelling, though some of the performances, like Garrett Hedlund’s FBI agent, sound robotic at times. It’s not always the easiest movie to sit through, especially because, even for someone as morbid as I am, it’s some grim stuff. Yet it’s Day who ultimately saves this decent but somewhat uneven Holiday.


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