After her Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama win at the Golden Globes, Andra Day (“Marshall”) seems to be one of the front-runners for an Academy Award for her performance as Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Day looks to follow in the footsteps of Renée Zellweger and Rami Malek by giving the Academy a chance to reward another actor’s strong performance as a famous musician.
The rest of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” however, fails to live up to its lead’s performance. The film is a look into the FBI conspiring to use Holiday’s drug problem against her to get her thrown in prison, ultimately trying to stop her from performing her anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.”
Narratively, the film is fairly weak, which is unfortunate because there is a lot of interesting subject matter. For a film called “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” this conflict is surprisingly sidelined in favor of a look at Holiday’s more personal problems not involving racism or systemic oppression, which is especially disappointing given that her complicated private life has been portrayed on screen before. The script opts for a more formulaic approach that ultimately hinders the powerful nature of its most resonant themes.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” opens with an interview with Holiday that acts as a pseudo-framing device to tell her life story. However, the film does not revisit that interview enough, only returning to it when the narrative requires an easy transition to a different topic or when it needs the interviewer to explicitly state the questions the film has been asking for its entire runtime. It’s an overused trope in biopics, and in order for it to work, it needs to either be done extremely well or be critical to telling the story. Unfortunately, Billie Holiday’s interview doesn’t appear to do either in this film, and the story is worse off for it.
The narrative also uses this life story approach to explore its themes of racism, addiction and artistic freedom. These are rich, important themes to make a film about, but the approach lacks the necessary depth. The film tries to build the story around its plot points as if it’s a checklist of moments in Holiday’s life. This ultimately hurts the flow of the narrative as the pacing ends up feeling way too fast-paced.
The film has to get through nearly 20 years of Holiday’s life, and as a result, it never slows down to give the audience the requisite time to absorb and reflect properly on what is happening. The one time it seems to hit its stride is during a sequence with Holiday and Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes, “Moonlight”). Fletcher, a federal agent who has a relationship with Holiday, joins her in taking heroin, leading them to both relive the singer’s past trauma. The scene culminates in Holiday performing her song “Strange Fruit” — a song protesting the lynching of Black Americans. It is an extremely powerful sequence that not only provides depth for the film’s heavy themes but also allows Lee Daniels (“Precious”) to show off his talents as a director and Day to give an incredible physical and vocal performance. If Day does go home with the Oscar, that sequence will definitely be why.
While “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is lacking in its writing and plot, Daniels’s skill behind the camera is evident and elevates the film above its story. There are numerous scenes (including the one mentioned above) where Daniels uses one-takes to keep the camera moving and add dynamism to the scene. He also uses fade transitions and overlapping images — à la Apocalypse Now — that give the film an old-school feel. This, along with the gorgeous costumes, does a great job of immersing the audience into the time period (even if it’s occasionally undercut by time cards).
Overall, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” cannot get past the formulaic nature of its narrative. It’s a trap many recent music biopics have fallen into, but it is especially disappointing here given the themes it tries to tackle. Daniels does a good job behind the camera, and Day gives a fantastic performance as Billie Holiday, but the storyline just can’t match their talents. Still though, do not be surprised if you see the film come home with a couple of Academy Awards on April 25.
Daily Arts Contributor Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.