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‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ croaks on bad notes

‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ croaks on bad notes

‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ croaks on bad notes
March 04
12:00 2021

In the 1940s, singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day) is targeted by Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for her controversial hit “Strange Fruit.” His main weapon is agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who soon begins to question his loyalties. As Holiday struggles to fight against those who would explore her and the harassment to perform “Strange Fruit” as the injustices mount around her.

The latest drama from director Lee Daniels, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is attempting to explore a lot of topics: the early war on drugs’ effect on Black communities, Billie Holiday as a human being, her relationships and so much more. With eight years spent in TV since his last film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” Daniels has certainly had time to more finely hone his craft. Furthermore, the amount of subjects he is attempting to address means there certainly is no lack of ambition on display.

Sadly, that may have been his downfall.

Aside from Day’s central performance and a couple of appealing visuals, there’s not much to boast about here. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” falls apart pretty quickly and in nearly every aspect of filmmaking.  This is easily one of the more disappointing and shockingly ramshackle-feeling movies released on Hulu in a while.

None of that is Day’s fault, however. She just scored a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama and it’s easy to see why. She’s very committed to the role, emulating Holliday’s singing voice nearly flawlessly and going all-in on the portrayal of a headstrong, fiercely angry woman tormented by the failures in her life. She’s haunted by her own choices, the men who exploit her and the blatant disregard for her song and artistic passions. Whenever the script falters, Day powers through it and draws our attention back through an intense performance that runs through most of the emotional spectrum.

Another positive is that while Daniels’ direction often falters, there are moments where his sense of style and pizzazz makes for pretty arresting moments – particularly when Holiday comes upon the aftermath of a lynching. Combined with her drug trip, we then wander through her early life before she is finally compelled to perform “Strange Fruit” as the camera lingers on Day’s face, an expression of composed rage. Daniels also revels in the imagery of late 1940s New York, soaking in the atmosphere and vintage glow of a bygone era.

However, what’s shocking is how little life Daniels seems to have put into his direction. While he crafts a couple of dazzling sequences, there are long stretches where he just seems to let the camera wander around the cast. It’s not like “One Night in Miami,” where the camera focus is in service to the actors — Daniels just doesn’t seem to figure out where to place the camera or how to frame his actors other than the center or next to each other.

His failure in direction is only compounded by Suzan-Lori Parks’ lackluster script. While Parks based it on a single chapter from Johann Hari’s “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Day of the War on Drugs,” I wasn’t left wanting more. In fact, the script attempts to cover too much.

Daniels and Parks fall into a common biopic trap: when creators try to cover such an expansive period of time while reducing the supporting characters to meatless stereotypes. They also try to squeeze a lot of hard-hitting moments into 130 minutes — Holiday’s heroin usage, the government targeting, lynchings, true love, success, Anslinger’s vendetta against her, her friendship with Tallulah Banks (a very underused Natasha Lyonne), her multiple husbands — it’s a lot and so much of it just didn’t need to be in the film.

The story also fails to make any real salient point about any of its subject matter. It can’t find any real focus, aside from the movie being bookended by title cards mentioning the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. The worst sin a screenwriter can commit isn’t to ignore injustices like these — it’s to fumble them so hard, the audience forgets it until the ending title card mentions it.

Keep in mind, this is a movie about a song detailing how the lynched corpses of Black people resembled fruit among Southern trees.

The score by Kris Bower is also mostly forgettable, which is not something anyone wants to hear about a film detailing the life of one of the most legendary American singers of all time. Day again sonically impresses as Holiday, but there’s not much else to say.

As an attempt to do Billie Holiday justice as an icon and human being, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is piss poor. While Day impresses in only her third starring role, the rest of the film fails to inform or entertain. By the end, you’re just bored and watching with complete apathy as the film drags its own inert corpse across the finish line.

Will’s Rating: 1.5/5

Featured image: Courtesy Hulu

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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