Film critic Hanna Flint on why this new biopic doesn’t do justice to the iconic singer.
Billie Holiday was a musical revolutionary. She died young, at only 44, but her voice lives on through her music delivered over a 26-year career.
She changed the way artists sing the blues and her innovative vocal arrangements on songs like My Man, I’ll Be Seeing You and Blue Moon earned her critical acclaim and international adoration during the early 20th century. But it was by drawing from the blues in her personal life that made her truly a tragic jazz icon.
Holiday had escaped a harrowing childhood, marred by sexual exploitation, rape and a stint in prison, by embracing the jazz she loved to listen to and performing at local clubs in Harlem. Before long, she was scouted by producers, signed to a record label and her singing career was launched. However, as her success increased, her health disintegrated as she formed toxic relationships with booze, drugs and abusive men who sought to exploit her, and the FBI’s narcotics task force went after her even when she was on her deathbed in 1959.
Holiday’s life was more dramatic than most Hollywood movies, and 13 years after her death, Diana Ross would earn an Academy Award nomination for playing the singer in the 1972 biopic Lady Sings The Blues.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is the latest feature film to explore the darker side of Holiday’s legacy. It arrives after the recent release of James Erskine’s documentary Billie last year but these two films have more in common than their subject. While Erskine frames his narrative through the would-be Holiday biographer Linda Lipnack Kuehl, Lee Daniels’ latest directorial endeavour, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, similarly uses a white journalist, in this case, Leslie Jordan’s Reginald Lord Devine, as an entry point into the Black singer’s story.
Devine has paid for an interview with Holiday, played by newcomer Andra Day, to discuss her protest song Strange Fruit. Flashbacks to a decade earlier show how her 1939 song, about Black people being lynched in the South, as well as her well-established heroin habit, made her a long-running target for the racist head of the FBI’s drug enforcement department Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund).
This framing device seems somewhat tone-deaf for a film meant to be concerned with examining racial discrimination, misogynoir and systemic oppression through the perspective of one of America’s most influential and tragic Black figures. But it’s not the most frustrating element in a film that can be best described as a cheesy Lifetime Channel romantic thriller with a few gratuitous sex scenes thrown in for good measure.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is an oversimplified and shallow biopic more concerned with showing the singer as a salacious, drug-addicted Black woman in need of a romantic saviour, in the form of Trevante Rhodes’ FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher, than exploring any deeper, introspective exploration of who she was as a human being.
In her screen debut, Golden Globe-nominated Day impressively connects with the vulnerability and forthrightness of Holiday, embodies her pain as her health declines and delivers her trademark husky voice with ease. Sadly, no moment in the script gives the actor the opportunity to really dissect the trauma, addiction and prejudices against the singer.
Instead, each scene seems designed to simply have her reacting to unfortunate incidents. A drug raid, a beating from a husband, a courtroom sentencing, sex backstage, her dog’s funeral, being barred from using a whites-only elevator, are just a few of the scenes flung together in a patchwork and stylistically contradictory fashion. Even when Day finally performs Strange Fruit, in an anticlimactic moment halfway through the film, it arrives out of the blue in an emotionally jarring sequence.
Daniels continually presents Holiday as a battered woman through the male gaze of the men who hounded, exploited, brutalised and sexualised her. “She’s a sucker for men,” we’re told and one of them is Jimmy Fletcher, who is the primary male character through which we witness Billie.
Fletcher was the FBI agent who was tasked with bringing Holiday down because he was Black and could infiltrate her world. In real life he was staunchly anti-drugs so had no qualms with the subterfuge but felt conflicted and guilty after putting her in jail for a year. The film shows her arrest but a montage scene depicting her cleaning in jail while he lies topless listening to her music is about as deep a psychological interrogation of those feelings that the film offers.
His performance is flat in comparison to Day and Hedlund’s Anslinger, and Rob Morgan’s Louis McKay, Billie’s abusive criminal partner, is just as one-dimensional. Meanwhile, her female friends, Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Roslyn and Natasha Lyonne’s Tallulah Bankhead, are treated as footnotes in the singer’s story
It’s certainly hard to reconcile that this movie was made by the same filmmaker behind 2009’s Oscar-nominated Precious, a story with similarly harrowing themes of misogynoir, sexual assault and systemic oppression that managed to service its female characters with far more depth.
This film’s only salvation comes through the performances of Holiday’s hits. Day is a stunning vocalist and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter so was able to deliver the singer’s complicated feelings far better through these songs and that’s probably because the lyrics were penned long before this script.
Day, of course, is not Billie Holiday so a trip to YouTube to watch the original sing the blues will likely offer a far more authentic way to enjoy and understand this musical icon rather than this disappointingly hollow biopic.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is on Sky Cinema Friday 26 February