The United States Vs Billie Holiday review: a stunning portrayal of a rebel with a cause

Charlotte O'Sullivan
·4-min read
 (AP)
(AP)

In this wonderfully untoward Billie Holiday biopic, the ground-breaking jazz icon is played by Grammy-nominated singer, Andra Day. The latter resembles a ripe cross between Lisa Bonet and Rihanna. And she can act. In fact, she brings so much passion to her first film role that the hackneyed phrase ‘a star is born’ fits her like a long glove.

Andra has been nominated for a Golden Globe. She will almost certainly be a contender for an Oscar and when you consider how often actresses are rewarded for playing fragile but indomitable legends - see Marion Cotillard and Renee Zellweger – it starts to seem possible she might win.

Anyway, whether it attracts awards or not, The United States Vs Billie Holiday is worthy of your consideration.

It’s 1939 and Billie is wowing the jazz club crowds with her distinctively croaky, almost tipsy brand of crooning (which Day has down pat; no pale imitations or lip-syncing for her, which is why, as a piece of musical homage, this movie is infinitely more satisfying than Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).

HULU
HULU

Lady Day, however, has a problem. She’s a rebel with a cause and her attachment to the anti-racist ballad Strange Fruit has made her a target for the government. One particular official, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), thinks up a way to further his own career while destroying hers.

Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes; fantastic), a black government agent, becomes part of a high-profile sting. Several of Holiday’s lovers, already in the government’s pocket, rat on her to the cops and one even plants heroin on her to ensure she gets busted. In Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday’s husband, Louis McKay, is portrayed as a sweetheart. Here, the record’s set straight. The war on drugs is shown to be a war on people with brown skin and McKay, to put it mildly, is on the wrong side.

In case you’re wondering, director Lee Daniels and scriptwriter Suzan-Lori Parks are happy to acknowledge Holiday’s self-destructive tendencies. They simply want us to view those tendencies in a new way.

We are shown Holiday’s self-destructive tendencies in a new wayHulu
We are shown Holiday’s self-destructive tendencies in a new wayHulu

In a surreal and sensual sequence, Jimmy, having fallen for Billie, takes heroin with her. In what can only be called an out-of-brain experience (he leaves his own; he enters Billie’s) he witnesses a key scene from her childhood. And his reaction - he howls like a baby - seems likely to inspire a gazillion think pieces about the power of empathy.

Fletcher is based on a real-life figure; a bit of poetic licence has been taken, but not as much as you’d think. The charismatic federal agent really did go “soft” on Holiday and told one biographer he’d always feel guilty for abusing her trust.

A number of projects, right now, are honing in on black cultural leaders and enemies within (see One Night in Miami and the forthcoming Judas and the Black Messiah). It’s hard to ignore the mythic, religious quality of such betrayals and the film-makers behind The United States Vs Billie Holiday were obviously mindful of that dynamic. Parks, for example, has compared Holiday to Jesus (“her friends had to give her up like Jesus’ friend gave him up”). Yet, thank Christ, the film’s Billie is never a saint. At various points, she treats her pals, including the puppy-like Lester Young and snarky dog-lover Roslyn (Tyler James Williams and Da’Vine Joy Randolph; both effervescent) in a way that’s careless and cruel. She also lashes out at a blameless lift attendant.

HULU
HULU

As well as being appalled by Billie, we even get to laugh at her. There’s plenty of comic relief in this picture and there’s something democratic about the fact that Holiday is often the butt of the joke.

Admittedly, some of Daniels’ decisions are iffy. He keeps slipping black and white footage into the mix and the effect is more distracting than useful. Meanwhile, several set pieces are pop-video glossy and there are too many shots of a naked Day. The real Billie was undoubtedly uninhibited, but the way Day’s body is framed, in sex scenes, is formulaic and borderline fetishistic.

Still, nothing can blunt the force of this portrayal, which contextualises an artist who instinctively understood that to stand up to racism was a matter of life and death. Billie was a slippery customer. By embracing that awkward fact, Daniels and his team seize the Day.

130mins, cert 15. On Sky Cinema from February 27